When the new series of The Apprentice hit our screens last week, I almost switched off. Every new batch of candidates seems to include the same ludicrous mix of egos and whingers as the year before.
Clacketty stilettos, hair gel, wheelie suitcases and far, far too much self-regard.
Nonetheless I succumbed – it’s research, I told myself – and reluctantly had to admit that the show is still great television. It is wildly successful… and fatally flawed.
So here is my view of The Apprentice in nine simple bullet points. You know, the sort of thing Lord Sugar would demand in the boardroom.
It may be reality TV, but it sure ain’t real
Does The Apprentice accurately portray small business life? The answer is, screamingly, no. Most SME owners watch it through gritted teeth.
As Tim Campbell, winner of the first series, tells me: “It’s a great interview process for Lord Sugar to see who could run a business for him.”
The format may have been given an entrepreneurial makeover, but the position is still for a glorified hired hand – albeit for a £250,000 “investment” rather than an inflated pay packet.
I’m an Entrepreneur, Get Me Out of Here!
That’s not to say that past winners lack ability. Campbell has gone on to success as boss of the Bright Ideas Trust, which helps young entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds.
He says the show highlights some of the skills required for business – the gift of the gab especially. It’s also a process that forces people to address their flaws. Remember when Tom Pellereau turned around his abysmal sales performance?
No one loves a gobby weasel
One of the failings of the show is that it’s completely short-term in its treatment of customers. It doesn’t matter if the product is preposterous or revolting, it just has to be sold. Such attitudes reinforce the image of fast-talking businessman as weasel-like money-grubber. Equally, television favours the extrovert over the quietly diligent. Real business needs both. Entrepreneurship is not narcissism.
It’s like The Hunger Games but with suits
The way candidates are pitted against each other is also unhelpful, reckons Simon Duffy, co-founder of the men’s skincare brand Bulldog. “Smaller companies need to collaborate their way to success,” he says. “The Apprentice can get a bit ‘Hunger Games’.”
Meanwhile in Westminster, does anyone care?
The Apprentice, along with Dragons’ Den, has been credited with highlighting the issues small businesses face. But entrepreneurs say it’s had little effect on policy. “My local MP is still completely clueless,” says one, who prefers not to be named. “I’m not sure many MPs are watching the show and thinking about policy,” says Campbell.
When I grow up, I want to be on The Apprentice. No, not really
Would anyone really want to be one of the candidates? I’ve thrown cushions at the TV when one of these aspiring Rockefellers utters a gem such as, “I’m in it for the money and women” (that was episode one of the new series, in case you’re wondering). But they are risking it all. And imagine the humiliation of going out in weeks one and two, being forced to beg for your old job back.
He swaggered, she bitched
As a woman, I have been infuriated by the portrayal of the girls’ and boys’ teams over the years. Women bitch and moan. Men swagger and backstab. Much of this may be down to editing. However, at least both sexes are equally represented on the show – unlike the real world, where women are still fighting for their fair share of seats on the boards of the UK’s top 250 companies.
As Tim Campbell points out: “Most companies would die for a 50/50 talent pool to select from, and a high percentage of the female candidates get through to the final stages and win.”
Across 10 series, four women have become Lord Sugar’s Apprentice, beating the diversity targets set by Helena Morrissey’s 30% Club.
There has also been a spread of ages and backgrounds, although the BBC does like to throw in a few East End lads who claim to be Little Lord Sugars in the making.
You’re fired. No, you’re fired
Let’s be honest. Some of the best moments on The Apprentice have been those boardroom clashes where Lord Sugar cuts a candidate down to size. Brutal, simple and highly effective. Brilliant for television but not so good in the real workplace. A couple of put-downs like Lord Sugar’s and any real-world boss would be frogmarched off to human resources for re-education.
The Apprentice 3.0?
What would The Apprentice look like if it were true to life? Well, sadly, nothing like as silly or as glamorous. I rather like Simon Duffy’s suggestion, which could make decent cringe-comedy: “It would be hilarious to get candidates to visit their local high street banks and pitch ideas to actual bank managers for a loan or overdraft. Could they get anything done in two days?”
If politicians, bankers and the public saw the hoops small businesses jump through to complete this most basic of tasks, it could bring positive change. Imagine a bank opening its inner workings for such a programme? I’d watch it.
Rebecca Burn-Callander is enterprise editor of the Daily Telegraph