Why ‘The Apprentice’ is bad for business

Lord Alan Sugar of The Apprentice
Lord Alan Sugar of The Apprentice

For years I’ve been avoiding avidly watching ‘The Apprentice’. Last time I watched it, I saw them attempt a dreadful rebrand of Margate. But this week, I was asked to give it another go and I found myself hating it even more.

The group had the task of creating a new dessert product to sell into the major supermarket groups and the team who did worse only managed to create and sell 15,000 units in their allotted few days, whereas the winners sold 23,500. So why do I think this is so wrong?

1. The competitors behaviour in the boardroom was horrific. Initially they worked as teams but were encouraged and delighted by the fact that they should back stab their other team members in front of “Lord’ Sugar. I’ve been in business for a long time and maybe I’m the naive one, but a situation where the other person has to lose for you to be able to win is not a situation I recognise or respect. I don’t believe it sustains good business.

2. ‘Lord Sugar’s’ feigned ignorance was appalling. He sneered at one of the competitors for referring to their target audience as ‘grazers’ If he genuinely didn’t understand this term, is he qualified to judge such a programme?

3. The situation itself was completely ridiculous. For young people to believe that it’s the norm to pop into a development kitchen and create a new dessert without even a nod towards costing it up properly (more Saffron anyone?) is bad enough, but for them to carry on the myth by pretending they had secured pitches in front of Tesco and Waitrose is even more ridiculous. For them to pretend that they then ordered units without any production ability or drawn out negotiation just perpetuates the stupidity.

4. And then it came to the judging. The esteemed ‘Lord’ Sugar decided who he wanted to belittle first. A young lady with an idea about a healthy eating restaurant chain emanating from Sunderland was literally laughed out of the boardroom. But what had changed? That was the business idea she had pitched to get onto the programme, so when did it suddenly become something worth ridicule? It was nasty and spiteful and all to do with bullying on TV. She had been set up for that fall since she agreed to join the programme.

For me, business is built on the old fashioned values of mutual respect, trust and hard work. Throw in some luck and grasping the good opportunities that present themselves, whilst knowing which ones to pass over, is the difference between success and failure.

The Apprentice is X Factor business. Nothing to do with ANY of these business values and everything to do with creating shocking TV and making money at any cost, despite how many people you harm on the way. If this is the impression we give young people about how business behaves, in my opinion, very few of them will choose to join us. Those that do will be horrendous colleagues trained in the very worst of business behaviour.

This isn’t an apprenticeship, It’s an ugly beauty parade that’s causing harm to the future of business.

Thanks to TV Choice magazine for the picture of the pin up boy for business, Lord Sugar.

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Margate, Mr Simms, Tracey Emin and an amazing regeneration of a town centre

If you have read any of my blog posts before, you may remember that I spent some of my formative years in Margate and I still rather like the place. But for many years it has been a seriously depressed and depressing place to be. I’ve suggested ways for them to improve things before and already reported that it is getting better, but I am delighted to report that after my visit this weekend the town feels really like it is well on its way to a complete recovery.

The Turner Contemporary was showing a huge Tracey Emin exhibition. Not even slightly my cup of tea and I can’t show any of the work as you’re not allowed to take photos. But it is a huge draw and there were far more people here than on the beaches.

The Turner Contemporary in Margate
The Turner Contemporary in Margate

The statue by Rodin ‘The Kiss’ was far easier for a simple bloke like me to understand and whilst I did think the characters in the statue did have extraordinarily large hands and feet, it did feel like a huge privilege to see something so beautiful and obviously world class for free in (one of) my home town(s). It is made even more dramatic by the backdrop of the sea through the spectacular windows of the Turner, which completely frame the view.

Rodin's Kiss at the Turner Contemporary in Margate
Rodin’s Kiss at the Turner Contemporary in Margate

But at the same time, there was a massive UK beach volleyball championship going on further up the beach. The Margate Masters was beautifully organised across 12 courts and again free. It had quite a few people watching and cheering. from my completely limited knowledge, it looked to be played to a high standard too.

The Margate Masters - Beach Volleyball Maragte Style
The Margate Masters – Beach Volleyball Maragte Style

But then, a new highlight and a sign of the real regeneration. Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe.

Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe in Margate
Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shoppe in Margate

What a fabulous and world class little shop. For regeneration to take place, it needs world class inward investors. The Turner started it, but little retailers like this are picking up the baton and really carrying it forward. I know it’s only a sweet shoppe, but it was beautifully designed, offered great service from knowledgable staff and had things from around the world that I have never seen in the UK, such as Vanilla Coke Zero and Peanut Butter Snickers (which I have enjoyed already).

The whole town felt like it was becoming a little Brighton and the retail centre is slowly building itself back out from the Old Town. there areother new retailers throughout the Old Town and back up the High Street.

I was so impressed with how far Margate has come that now i’m hoping for the rebirth of Dreamland and even more great things to come.

Margate, The Old Town, the Turner Contemporary and Camp Granada

You know that song by Allan Sherman from 1963. “Hello Muddah, Hello Farder, here I am at Camp Granada’

You know, the one, where the camp looks terrible, it’s wet and vile. Then the sun comes out and it all looks beautiful again. You know, this one.

Well that’s what has happened in Margate. I wrote a piece in August 2009 here. And then later in 2009, I suggested that Margate Councillors should be more creative in the way they attracted retailers here.

Well, the alternative was to build a huge great new Turner Contemporary instead. Which they did.

The new Turner Contemporary in Margate
The new Turner Contemporary in Margate

And what a difference it has made. It’s like the clouds have cleared and the games have started. The Old Town, which had potential, has delivered. A little market was a start point, but the retail space is lovely.

Margate Old Town - What a beautiful place
Margate Old Town - What a beautiful place

And whilst this picture doesn’t do it justice, the cafes are bustling on a Sunday morning and people are landing to see the Turner and spreading out through the town.

Cupcakes and coffee in Margate old town
Cupcakes and coffee in Margate old town

Margate looked lovely for the first time in years. It looks a little loved, as though the money spent on it has finally been well spent. The future for Margate has to be more than pie and mash and jellied eels, it has to have some culture in it too. Hopefully the Turner and it’s crowd of visitors can deliver this too.

I just hope the growth continues back into the rest of the town too….

The creative answer to start-up’s problems

A little while ago, I wrote a piece about the fight that Margate and Derby were facing in attracting new retailers when they are committed to charging business rates based on the rateable value. I proposed that the councils have to be flexible and offer rent and rates free periods to attract younger start ups in, without the fear of long lease commitments – which would put the mockers on most retail start-ups in any trading times, let alone difficult trading times.

And it seems that the answer has happened right on my doorstep, with the arrival of Wayne Hemingway’s Kioskiosk Project. This project allows start-ups free use of a funky retail space within the city to see what works for them, see whether they like it and to see whether they can make money at it – without much downside risk.

Embarrassingly, I was actually invited (and had accepted) the invitation to the opening of this in Pelham Street, Nottingham, but forgot. That’s pretty bad planning on my part and appallingly rude. Sorry Wayne and sorry Nina of Invest in Nottingham who invited me.

So I went along today to see what it was all about and the star of the show today is a young designer called Gill Heeley, who actually did a placement with us a few years ago at Purple Circle. This is her at the Kiosk.

Gill Heeley of We Make T-Shirts with their three days of fame at Kioskiosk in Pelham Street Nottingham
Gill Heeley of We Make T-Shirts with their three days of fame at Kioskiosk in Pelham Street Nottingham

I asked her to look proud for the shot and I think that works! It’s also my first published shot with my new Ricoh GR camera that I bought after realising that many of the shots I got in the US were rubbish.

Gill, whilst studying graphic design at Nottingham Trent, started making T-shirts for fun and then teamed up with two friends – Tony Waddington and Mike Knight – from college to try it out as a business.

They now run a business called We Make T-shirts and you can look at their website here.

They’ve got some lovely shirts with great detailing and already look to have some good orders behind them for other independents. This independent sector is what allows any city to differentiate themselves and Kioskiosk, delivers a trial independence beautifully.

There is no way Gill and her partners would take out a lease. There is no way that any bank would lend them the cash to start up without a proven track record. But Kioskiosk gives them the chance to have a look.

Talking to Gill, she was under no illusions about how hard starting and running your own business can be, so she’s being realistic – and maybe this chance is just what her and her partners need to get started on their way to a great business.

Good luck to them and thanks for giving them the opportunity Mr Hemingway. Oh, and Nottingham City Council for giving them the space.

The effective way for Margate and Derby to fight back

Empty shop in Margate - A chance for the independents
Empty shop in Margate – A chance for the independents

There was lots in the news on the BBC on Friday about the seaside town of Margate having the worst percentage of empty shops for any town in the UK with a 25% rate. This was closely followed by Derby, which for a major urban conurbation has an astonishing rate of 22%.

Now I know both of these places very well having grown up in Margate and have written about it both here and here, and I live within a few miles of Derby.

So I thought I was in a good place to comment on both places from a branding perspective and from a common sense perspective. The two are often quite separate and for me, this seems to have been the case in both of these examples.

So firstly Derby. It’s a compact city that has built it name on the back of engineering with Rolls Royce, and latterly Toyota and Bombardier. It used to have a lovely friendly small city vibe to it but was always slightly ‘chippy’ about its relationship with Nottingham, just a few miles along the A52. It seemed to spend more time looking at what Nottingham was doing and trying to compare itself favourably to it, rather than looking at organising its own offer. It has been branded as the city of the future, Derby yes and I don’t know how many other silly place branding attempts. All have failed to capture what is great about the city, which, for an outsider looking in, is that it is easy to get around, friendly, very good looking in places and quite nice to live or even shop in.

So when they announced the huge new Westfield development, it was almost like they had got off with the best looking girl at the school disco. Nottingham and Leicester looked on jealously as to what massive wealth this new shopping mecca would bring them. But unlike with the retailer, Wilko’s you can’t always polish a turd.

I’m not saying Derby is a turd per se, but I am saying that what they did was built a huge great homogenous monstrosity in the heart of a lovely city that had no connection with the city itself. They built an out of town soulless shopping experience in the heart of a city that was full of soul. It had no connections to the outside world. They drew their best retailers from the streets into the centre and in doing so, pulled out its heart. They forgot what made Derby both different and great and with 22% of their shops empty, are now reaping the rewards of their greed, stupidity and short sightedness.

The story with Margate is remarkably similar. A lovely little east Kent seaside town that had lost its sparkle, become the home to bail hostels and low end living and with its obvious lack of investment over the previous few years saw huge ££££ signs ringing in front of its eyes when they allowed Land Securities to build the monstrous Westwood Cross between its main towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs.

Again, they dragged the heart out of the towns, Margate suffered most as it was already in decline anyway, but all saw their multiple retailers leaving in droves to create even more homogenised and soulless developments for us to travel to and endure.

But in recessionary times, we all seem to work out that you can only own so much stuff and then it has to stop. Well, we stopped.

I am convinced that brands have to fight back by being different, not by being homogenised. I don’t want to look like the next person in the street, I want to look like me.

The future of branding is unbranded.

So the towns and cities need to fight back. Not through another pointless rebrand that will just get the local people and the local papers baying for blood, but by deciding what they stand for and then offering real incentives to drive the right people to deliver that into place.

If you want independent retailers, then the councils have to be flexible. Why not offer them rent free periods or even licenses rather than onerous long leases that scare the start ups away. If you are thinking about starting a small business, would you feel comfortable about immediately signing a lease that commits you to five years of rent payments whether it works out or not? No me neither.

Business rates could help too. At present, any business pays 48.5p for every £1.00 of assumed rental value in its business rates. So if it’s arbitrarily decided that your space should be rented at £10,000 per year, you would have to pay £4850 in business rates over and above any rental or lease payments. But again, in recessionary times, this space is worth nowhere near what it has been in the past, so there needs to be a huge degree of flexibility exercised here. If landlords are having to take almost zero rent to get retailers back into spaces, surely the rates should be calculated on what they actually pay, rather than what they should be paying in some imaginary, ideal world economy?

Margate and Derby have a glut of retail space, so they need to make it incredibly attractive to independents to come along and give it a go, without the huge downside risk they would normally face, so that independently minded people will come back and begin to shop there. In my mind, only something as radical as this will get the spaces trading again. No amount of art in the windows will do this, but all credit to Margate for starting to make empty shops at least look more attractive.

Margate shop window art
Margate shop window art – an imaginative use of empty retail spaces

Empty spaces are self perpetuating. Fewer people will take the risks of setting up and as such, fewer people come to their to shop in the first place.

As with any recession, this is a chance for Derby and Margate to define their character. They have already sold their souls and found that it isn’t as great or profitable an experience as they once hoped. Lets hope they take this chance now to recover their fighting and independent spirit and maybe even save their souls.

Thanks to Melita Dennett for the Margate empty shop shot. More great work from her here. And to Maggie 224 for the Margate art shop  – More of her work here

Margate fights back – Rebrand or no rebrand

Margate, fresh from its appalling rebranding attempts on The Apprentice is most definitely fighting back.

I wrote this article last week and found myself defending the place quite vigorously.

By way of follow up, I have just spoken to a very helpful ‘spokesperson’ at the Tourist information centre and they report that the town was absolutely packed this weekend with thousands of families looking for the type of break that Kate’s team were promoting.

I think there are a few things to learn from this. The first is that the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s apathy and maybe many of us had got a little apathetic about Margate and British resorts in general. Maybe this programme forced many to look again at their own prejudices and get down there and judge for themselves?

The second and perhaps most important point is that in our own experience of place branding, you need a catastrophic event to start the fight back. There were so many people being negative about the place generally that those of us who have lived there and loved it, stand up and shout back at those who put it down – particularly those who have never even been there.

This has happened in Liverpool, where there is huge civic pride from almost all who have lived there. We saw the same happen in Nottingham when we went through the rebranding process there and maybe the same is starting to happen in Margate.

Margate Old Town is beautiful, the Turner Centre should be spectacular and bring in a whole new audience to visit the shops, cafes and bars of a regenerated town without all the homogenised high street stores we see in every other town and city the world over. If Margate dares to be different, it has a chance to succeed. If it bottles it and homogenises it deserves to fail.

Rebranding any place in isolation will achieve absolutely nothing. Using it as an excuse to show people you have changed and will behave differently going forward has the potential to really work. This applies to ANY brand, be it place, product or service.

A busy Bank Holiday in Margate
A busy Bank Holiday in Margate

Thanks for the shot which is from Blood Oaf on Flickr. See his excellent work here.

Rebranding Margate – The Apprentice Way

Having watched The Apprentice last night for the first time, a few things struck me about the programme itself and the solutions that the contestants put forward as to how they would rebrand Margate.

I am no stranger to city county and place rebrands and was one of the people behind the controversial rebrand of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, being on the receiving end of tongue lashings from almost every outraged paper in the country for having the nerve to say that there was more to our city and county than just Robin Hood.

This is our version of events

I grew up in Margate and had two exceptionally happy years there moving away when I was only six years old. It would be very hard to argue that Margate still lives those glorious days in the 1970’s when Dreamland was at its boom and the new Arlington House flats being built were still hailed as a new way of living for Eastenders moving out from town to a new idyllic life by the sea.

A 60's dream gone slightly wrong
A 60's dream gone slightly wrong Shot by Sean Mason (Flickr)

I was in Margate again at the weekend for a few days with my kids, who are ten and twelve, and every single time we go there, we still love the place. Its simple British fun that has had the heart ripped out of it by a dreadful planning decision that put a new ‘out of town’ shopping monster between the main towns of Thanet and destroyed all the others in the process.

But Margate is fighting back. We walked around the old town which has some cool new boutiques and interesting arty stores. It also has some beautiful little shops available for rent for almost nothing. They just need an independent retailer to come in and make a success of it. If you can’t do this with 100SqM of retail space and a rent of £3k per year, you don’t deserve to stay trading anyway. Perhaps subsidised rents would allow the town to be reborn through this growing retail sector.

Margate - A town fighting back
Margate - A town fighting back - Shot by Lynn Jackson Flickr

Margate has a lovely feel to it, if you ignore the slightly tired façade. Offering a family appeal is the perfect answer and so I think Kate and her team were spot on. There was no need to rebrand it as MarGAYte as there is already a thriving gay community there, so what’s the commercial sense in aiming all your marketing money at just one niche. They could have done that easily with some clever PR and a few nicely designed ads.

None of them did actually rebrand the town though.

They just produced campaigns that may drive a few tourists through the door. A rebrand of any town or city only works if you have the whole area behind it. It’s the process of getting to the new logo and the newly agreed strategy that is important a by getting everyone to unite behind a common flag, they agree to talk the place up in the same way and become more able to defend it for what it is and promote it for what it could become.

The designers behind the losing team’s route should be shot for allowing a client to give them such a bad brief. ‘we need a brochure in 20 minutes’ will never work, lying about a reason for white space by the ‘client’ is even worse. Clients invariably get the work they deserve. If you leave a designer 20 minutes to produce a brochure with no distinctive or iconic pictures, too much mediocre copy and someone with no eye for design overseeing it, its always going to be a disaster that should have been prevented.

But the feeling I was left with overall, was why do you need to be that unpleasant in business to win. Surely you can be decent with each other and still succeed by championing what each other does best rather than laying traps into which each can fall and then celebrating when they do?

I was left hating the programme for its nasty snidy attitude.

I was left still loving and defending Margate – for all its faults – and looking at a council team who should be the ones taken out and ridiculed for letting Margate as a seaside town, sell its soul to the retail ‘gods’ who owned the site a few miles up the road.

I can’t imagine I’ll be tuning in again