The Apprentice, episode 9 – The biscuit task

I was a little uninspired by the evening’s adventure into the world of biscuits. Perhaps it’s my detox which means, that not only have I lost them from my diet, but I have also lost my lifelong love of the small, sugary, crispy offerings that I consumed so many of during the dullest of meetings.
However, the teams seemed up for their biscuit challenge. Again, another tough task of not only creating a brand new product and testing it, but also manufacturing and packaging it, branding and selling it – hold on a minute haven’t we seen all this before? I guess that’s the strength and the weakness of the show’s format. They will always end up producing or selling as Lord Sugar (if that was an ingredient list he would be slightly more Lordly than Sugary) isn’t looking for a manager of people. So, in the early hours, off the ‘Apprenti’ went to Swansea to develop their ideas.
On hearing the brief Zoe’s face lit up – never a good sign, as every ‘expert’ seems to fail when given their specialism in the task. 
The ‘ingredients’ of each team were again mixed up, which resulted in Venture being lead by the invulnerable Helen who stayed at biscuit HQ with Natasha while they sent Jedi-Jim packing off to Swansea to be the Mr Kipling of the team. 
In team logic, Zoe became manager as it was her ‘specialism’ but not until she had slapped down the yapping puppy that is Susie – to steal a phrase from Nick. As well as Susie, Zoe had ‘listen to me-listen to me Melody’, and Prof Tom in her team. Wanting to keep as far away as possible from the troublesome Melody, Zoe dispatched her and Tom to darkest Swansea to play at Willy Wonka.
Now that we are down to just seven candidates, the strength of their personalities is starting to show and their ability to annoy only heightens.
Their little idiosyncrasies and character traits are starting to bug me – am I getting too involved? From Tom’s blinky-eyed Mr Bean gormlessness, to Zoe’s voice which sounds like a creaking door to Natasha who looks ready for a fight or Melody who could start an argument in an empty room, they’re starting to grind, and not just with me but each other.
Their strategies are becoming clearer with each task and with each element of the task – from idea, development and sales through to the board room fights – it’s getting personal!
But back to the biscuits. 
What were the solutions? Venture’s Jim was coming up with ideas and names again and pretty much developed a whole flapjack, star-shaped biscuit on his own – very Kipling-esque.
He did his kiddie’s research and listened to what they had to say then relayed that back to base and the decision was made: ‘Special Stars’ as a treat for kids after school… which you can have anytime…so it became ‘anytime is treat time’.
A brand positioning that contradicts itself which they failed to pick up on but one which everyone else mentioned – but let’s gloss over that for now.
Meanwhile, in team Logic, Tom and Melody came up with three or four ideas.  Tom’s ’emergency biscuit’ (for diabetics perhaps?) wasn’t well received but he took it on the chin and presented his second idea, a biscuit which was two biscuits in one – with one half chocolate and the other half not chocolate – The ‘Bix Mix’ as they called it, aimed at schizophrenics perhaps or the terminally indecisive?
Having said that, my wife did say ‘ooh I could just eat one of those’ but she is a vegetarian so we shouldn’t take any notice of her dietary demands. Melody’s idea of creating a ‘new popcorn’ which was bits of biscuits with marshmallows was soundly rejected but she made the point that they were all wrong and she was right.
So with the biscuits designed and made, names were decided upon, packaging designed and off they went to pitch to three of the biggest supermarket chains in the country.
Helen and Jim took the lead on their pitches and fended off concerns over the sweetness of the product and over the possible negative health issues with the brave claim that if the parents want the kids to have something healthy, they can give them a banana – simples. 
Helen, between pitches, asked Natasha  to not ‘butt in’ if there was no need, so for the rest of the pitches Natasha said nothing – way to go managing your team Helen. And into the limelight stepped Jim. I have heard some bullshit in my time in pitches and he did ‘take the ……’ I won’t say it.
But it was a strongly executed piece of work and with Helen’s track record, could she win this one too?
On the other team, Melody insisted they kick off their pitches with an unannounced role play, at which point I had my head in my hands pleading that someone stop them. No-one did unfortunately and something that had a similar dramatic quality to your local primary school’s nativity play took place in front of these three very important buying teams – dreadful, truly dreadful.
It did though throw up an issue that we have seen before and one which created an argument between Zoe and Melody; the question of who was target audience? As it was said, if they themselves didn’t know, then why would the retailers? Audience is joint most important factor along with your offer – I know I’ve said it before but then this type of ‘task’ has also been on before.
It turned out no one actually liked Zoe’s team’s product, the biscuit itself, but everyone loved the packaging and brand. Sadly though, ‘creative’ only accounts for 20% of your success after knowing your audience and having a good offer, or in this case a good biscuit!
So, with the pitches done they returned to the boardroom to hear the results, the cracks and alliances in the teams showing. Helen seemed to feel confident in herself but had marked Natasha’s card just in case while Zoe and Melody might has well have just taken it on the street there and then and gone for it – let battle commence.
The result was another annihilation as Helen’s team generated an exclusive ASDA sale of 800,000 units of the rich and sickly treat that’s not a treat – the star biscuits. The result even drew a ‘bloody hell’ from the lips of Lord Sugary while Zoe’s team sold…none. Confused audience and poor offer – but hey, it looked pretty!
So, who returned to fight for their survival? Easy choices really as Susie hadn’t done much wrong so after a squint at Tom that would have done Nick proud, she was free to go. That left a trio* to return. 
Tom’s only defence for being a bit of a willy-wonka was that he didn’t know he was designing a premium product. Melody’s defence…well let’s be honest, she didn’t have one. She is simply dreadful and her ‘I don’t listen to anyone until they agree with me’ tactic is wearing thin. 
Tom, with his feeble defence, was again pulled up on his perfect 20/20 hindsight as a way of avoiding any personal responsibility or liability – he very nearly became a member of the ex-apprentice club*. 
Zoe’s defence, as team leader, was that the product let them down. But she was the boss and she should have been there as it was developed – her expertise meaning she had a responsibility to get the product right – at least in lord Sugary’s eyes.
And her failure to do so was so heinous a crime that the dark Lord had to flex his muscles and let Zoe and p-p-p-p-pick up* a…cab.
And what did we learn this week?
Well, Lord Sugar’s comment to Zoe of ‘you’re the expert and you didn’t perform in your field’, did echo with some advice I had offered an employer that very day in Northern Ireland when talking about his teams. 
To be effective and to be of value, your employees need to be aware of many things but three main areas to consider are their ‘expertise’ in their own discipline, in the business sector and in the business itself. I would suggest that Zoe tonight didn’t put a tick against any of those requirements. 
She couldn’t know ‘the business’ as there isn’t really a business – it’s a two day task. But she claimed to be an expert in creating, producing and branding a FMCG, and to having knowledge, almost expert knowledge, of the sector – high street supermarkets, “I pitch to these people all the time”. But on this occasion she didn’t fulfil any one of my suggested requirements, never mind the two she claimed. 
My advice would be to look at your staff, especially the ‘problem’ ones, and ask, are they really good at what they do? Do they really understand the sector you operate in? And do they really understand how your business functions, its goals and ambitions and how it generates profits? If they don’t tick either of those boxes then it’s time to stop what you are doing and have a break*, have a quick-chat.
*okay, so that’s a biscuit/pun/reference