Why one design business told Lord Sugar “you’re fired”

The Design Business Association’s John Scarrott talks to a design consultancy featured in the Apprentice about why they decided to leave the programme.

This year's Apprentice candidates
Lord Sugar with the 2014 Apprentice candidates

Reality TV show the Apprentice is back for a tenth series on 14 October. The show frequently features design studios, who help the candidates with various tasks such as developing new products or creating brands.

I’ve always been curious to know what goes on behind the scenes of the show, after all, we only see the final edited version. I did some digging and found a consultancy that has been involved with the Apprentice for the first seven series. Its principal shared with me his experience of being involved with the show.

The consultancy’s involvement with the Apprentice started with the very first episode. The producers of the show found their way to them via a toy brand they had worked with. The production company came in and met with the design team and they struck up a good relationship.

TV exposure

The benefits of involvement for the design consultancy were clear – exposure on primetime TV and the potential for work coming out of this enhanced profile. The consultancy was also paid a contribution towards expenses for its involvement.

The initial episodes were good for the consultancy. The production team followed the designers and interviewed them at various stages of the design process. The design team was also able to present its work back to the candidates.

The designers led the process and guided the candidates through the design stage. This was featured in full in the show. At the end of series one, the consultancy was contacted with an enquiry for a piece of business, which it won. So far, so good.

Shift in emphasis

But then the show’s producer changed and the designers noticed a shift in emphasis begin to take the programme in a different direction. From being set up to reveal aptitude and talent, with no serious conflict, the show started to focus its attention on the personality traits of the candidates. As a result, design and branding became less important and consequently were given less coverage in the show.

The designers felt this in a number of ways, the principal says. They were expected to “turn up, produce and disappear”. Their work ended up being televised as arriving by courier rather than being presented by them. By this point they were also working later and later, with deadlines getting earlier and earlier.

The consultancy’s role on the show had also changed, according to the principal. They were now being clearly instructed to do what the candidates said and to withhold any and all input of their own into the final design.

The show’s new direction

In the first series they had been given the opportunity to translate the candidates’ ideas from the briefs; this was now out. In fact in the filming of one episode it came to light that the consultancy had provided some of their own ideas to the candidates. This was apparently immediately deleted and re-edited with the strict instruction that whatever came out as the idea had to be the candidates own – even if it turned out to be the worst idea in the world. Actually, perhaps the worse the better to fit with the new direction of the show.

In the early days, the show was about how the designers could help the team. Now it was just about “knocking up a model”, the principal says.

What began for the designers as an involvement in a business programme was turning into something else, and they were beginning to question their involvement in the project.

Financial impact

The treatment of the design stage seemed also to be dependent on where the product design task occurred within the series. If it took place early in the series it was still treated with some depth and given time. Closer to the end though, when it became more about the individuals, then the task felt “crammed in”.

There was also an increasing financial impact to the designers’ involvement in the show, which the principal says was perhaps the tipping point to the consultancy’s decision to withdraw its involvement. He says the cost of their contribution to the show was was outweighing the benefit.

Each episode involved 18 people days spread over a day-and-a-half. Although a contribution was made by the show towards general expenses this did not balance up. Even when it was traded off against the media exposure for the designers (which had decreased with the change in the focus of the show) it just didn’t seem worth it.

So if you’re a design business and a TV production team comes knocking on your door laying fame and fortune at your feet, welcome them in, put the kettle on and maybe even offer them a chocolate biscuit. But make sure you weigh up the pros and cons carefully before you say “you’re hired!”.

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

Hide Comments (4)Show Comments (4)
  • Philip Brook November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I wonder how seeing the portrayal of agencies as mute, unseen back-office implementors will drive the behaviour of clients who believe that’s the norm…

  • John Scarrott November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Hi Philip, there’s a good debate in progress in the Design Business Associations Linked In group discussing precisely the question you ask. Feel free to join in, here’s the link: https://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=69382&type=member&item=5919758500975636481&trk=groups_most_popular-0-b-ttl&goback=%2Egmr_69382%2Egmp_69382

  • John Scarrott November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Based on last night’s episode, it’s not just the design businesses that are telling Lord Sugar “You’re Fired!” The candidates are taking the same approach. Maybe the nature of the selection process suggests a mismatch in cultures. In which case, no bad thing for either side.

  • Robert Curtis October 19, 2015 at 11:05 am

    If anyone is interested the consultancy in question is DesignWorks in Windsor. They have case studies of work produced for the show on their website.

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