Close-Up: Live Issue - When Sir Alan's apprentices made some ads

Amstrad's founder is typically forthright in his assessment of the teams' attempts at advertising, James Hamilton reports.

When he meets and greets his potential apprentices on the BBC2 show of the same name, Sir Alan Sugar offers a few choice words of advice.

He doesn't like bullshitters. Or arse-lickers. Liars might as well leave now. Sitting in his office, waiting for him to finish a conference call, I ponder for what must be the 50th time that morning what on earth he's going to make of the advertising industry.

Episode six of The Apprentice sees Sugar's dwindling group of potential employees charged with the task of creating an ad campaign for the snappily titled JB 1000 - a ten-CD stereo that Amstrad plans to sell in the US market. They are given the run of the Publicis offices for a couple of days to do it.

If you haven't seen the show, or the Donald Trump-fronted US original the BBC2 version is based on, the format goes like this: a group of would-be tycoons scheme, bitch, back-bite and, yes, bullshit for the chance to win a job with Sir Alan and a six-figure salary. Comfort viewing it ain't.

This episode, which will have the advertising industry wincing as the wannabe Sugar sidekicks back themselves into creative cul-de-sacs on the JB 1000 account, starts with the teams being bused off to Publicis' Baker Street HQ. There, they get the briefest pep talk from Keith Courtney, the Publicis creative director on Renault and the Post Office, before they're plunged into a meeting with the client - Sugar's son, Simon, the Amstrad commercial director, and one of his £99 CD players. The film cuts to Sugar. "There's a tendency for advertisers to get carried away and get creative," he says to his two sidekicks in the show. "It'll be interesting to see if they go down the arty-farty route. If they do, they'll get a kick in the arse from me."

Sugar doesn't have the nicest things to say about advertising.

Demographics are "bollocks"; a marketing budget is money he's "pissed up a wall". Advertising practitioners fare little better. "Advertising people are very special animals - they're bullshitters, just like I am, and that's how they make their money. Never bullshit a bullshitter," Sugar says, although he clearly admires their ability to wrest seven-figure sums from marketing managers. Sitting in his office-cum-boardroom watching a rough cut of the show while he bashes out the morning's e-mails, I start wondering if he's really as gruff as he is on the show, or whether it's part of an act. I don't have to wait long for my answer. Ten minutes into the episode, I ask an innocent question about the teams' budgets.

"Just watch the programme," he barks. "You'll miss it. I'll answer your questions after." That's me told.

Watching the two teams wrestle with a TV and print campaign is uncomfortable viewing. Publicis, Sugar explains, was very generous in giving the production its offices and expertise, but the agency was not allowed to offer any advice. The result is both teams focus far too much on getting the TV spot right and ignore the crucial print campaign. A big mistake - if they had done their homework, they would have discovered the lion's share of Amstrad's marketing is press.

"I'm an old warhorse at advertising," Sugar says. "There's not much you can tell me about it. We're in the sharp end of the electronics industry, not the iPod market where they can charge very high prices for their hardware. We're in a cut-throat market and our advertising has always had to be in-your-face."

All of Amstrad's advertising is created in-house. Always has been. "There's a lot of my own influence, but I'm not looking for any awards," Sugar says. "One of the things I said in that programme is that sometimes the advertising agency forgets what the customer is out to try and achieve - ie. sell some stuff. They're more interested in winning awards."

Has he thought about other types of advertising? What about the brave new world of advertiser-funded programming? I tell him it's hard not to notice the number of Amstrad e-mail phones in the show. "It's my office, I'm entitled to have my bloody phones in it," he snaps. "Our products are in lots of TV programmes. Some of the commercial channels charge for product placement. We don't go for that. I think it's more applicable to clothes designers," he says.

Has his experience with Publicis turned him on to the possibility of using a more creative agency in the future? "They'd waste their time with us," Sugar says. "We're known in the industry: 'You can't make any money out of that arsehole, keep away from him.'" Besides, he says, his advertising wouldn't interest them. "It's not the kind of stuff the arty-farty art directors really want to associate themselves with - it's too raw and rough-and-ready. They'd far rather be known for va-va-voom, or whatever it's called."

As for creating a buzz about the Amstrad brand, Sugar is equally dismissive.

In the book he's written to accompany the TV series, he says: "There are many companies that focus on building a brand. Amstrad has never adopted that approach. How would we market the brand? 'Always innovating'? Offering products that are 'best value for money'? But our products change. Our marketing is therefore much more about building awareness of our products."

And that crucial point is precisely where the apprentices fall foul of Sugar's legendary temper. The episode draws to a close with the two teams presenting their campaigns to a Publicis crew who will then advise Sugar on who they think has created the better campaign. The term "no-brainer" does not even come close when it comes to deciding who's won - the gulf between the two teams is that big. Watching the looks on the faces of Courtney, Mark Tomblin (Publicis' director of strategy) and the Publicis chairman, Tim Lindsay, as one of the contestants dances her way through her mood-board presentation is a TV gem. All struggle to find something nice to say. Lindsay offers a snippet of advice, recounting the old advertising adage that if you throw three balls at someone, they probably will not catch any of them; if you throw just one, they stand a chance.

"That's the only good thing I've ever heard come out of an advertising agency in my life," Sugar says after the show has finished. When the teams present their campaigns to Sugar, he's far less forgiving than Lindsay.

He tears huge, long strips off them, reducing one contestant to a bumbling, arse-licking fool, all lip-a-tremble, and another to floods of tears. "The annoying thing is these are intelligent people," he says, reasonably. "What are they doing? They're pitching their campaign to one of the biggest advertising companies in the world - you don't stand dancing in front of those people; they've forgotten more about all the crap of presentations than you'll ever learn."

As I leave, Sugar ducks into an office to dig out a copy of his book. He signs it for me. The inscription reads: "From the advertising man's nightmare - Alan Sugar."

The Apprentice will air on 22 March on BBC1.

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