Sugar coating hides stark reality?

Mark Wright is crowned as the winner of The Apprentice. Top 5 reasons why this was a surprise from a digital marketing agency founder.

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It is that time of year – rapidly expanding waist lines, hangovers, the X factor final, Stictly Come Dancing mania and the crowning of The Apprentice champion.

I am guilty of partaking in some, but not all, of the festive activities but and am not generally a fan of tired competition format TV. I was, however, lured into watching last night’s The Apprentice final having accidentally watched a bit of the penultimate episode as my interest was piqued when I saw that Mark Wright’s business plan was to start a digital marketing agency.

This is an area that I know well and I couldn’t resist watching it to see how he proposed to solve the problems that all digital marketing agencies face.

I must confess that I enjoyed watching it. Both finalists were very likeable and I actually thought that they were both extremely credible and poles apart from some of the attention seeking nightmares that I have seen on the programme before.

I am simply no expert on hosiery, so can’t really comment on the merits of Bianca’s tights business plan but wanted to focus this blog on my thoughts on some of the pitfalls in Mark’s plan and why I was surprised that Alan Sugar invested in his business.

Of course, this is ‘reality’ TV, so has very little to do with reality and who knows whether the business will ever actually get off the ground, but here are my top 5 reasons why I was surprised and why I think Alan Sugar may end up disappointed:

1) Invest in what you know

There is an old saying that you should only invest in things that you understand.

I felt myself getting angry during the Dara Ó Briain programme last night when the fact that nobody seemed to actually understand what Mark’s proposed business did was laughed about. It was a running joke throughout the show, but (good) business isn’t a joke.

Alan Sugar admits it and perhaps I should commend him from leaping into the unknown but I fear he will be out of his depth in the virtual world that he is entering. As Nick Hewer points out, Alan Sugar is a product man so I was surprised that he went with the service industry.

2) Get the basics right

Mark said during the final that ‘the website is everything’. Yes, I would agree that a digital marketing agency’s website is very important.

So… Errr… Do you not think that having the right domain name may be an important step in coming up with a business name? A very quick check for domain names would have revealed the fact that it is going to be a struggle.

Of course, we should allow a degree of poetic license on this one as who knows how much is real and how much is there for TV entertainment but I found myself reminiscing about the days when I was setting up Browser Media. Finding a business name that was available to register AND which had the domain name available was no mean feat. That was almost 10 years ago – it is even harder now, but for an online marketing expert (although with just two years experience?), that was a bit of a day one balls up, Mark!

3) It isn’t all about the rankings…

Again, perhaps I am too close to this one and it is impossible for me to be impartial but the name ‘Climb Online’, which was praised by Alan Sugar as it shows what the business is about, is far too focused on rankings.

I absolutely appreciate that most clients are focused on rankings (although I am still praying for the day when this is not the case) but modern digital marketing should be so much more than just looking at search engine rankings. Of course rankings are vital and will always be key to delivering success, but a good digital marketing agency should be encouraging its clients to measure what is actually happening on their website and striving to improve performance rather than obsessing about rankings, which are heavily personalised.

4) Where will the money go?

This is actually more of a rant at the format of the show, but at no stage was there any discussion on what Mark was going to do with the £250k.

It may be why I would rather watch Dragons’ Den than The Apprentice, even if that show has now become a vanity exercise for the dragons, but the business brain in me wanted to understand what Mark was going to do with the investment.

One of the advantages of a digital marketing consultancy is that it doesn’t actually require much in the way of capital investment. Bianca’s business would have required significant sums to get off the ground, but a digital marketing agency can be fairly lean and there is much less risk.

You need the right people and you need to market the agency, but I just didn’t get a sense of how Mark was proposing to use the investment. Crucially, if he is such a star and the business is so good that it is impossible that it will fail, why does he even need the investment from Alan Sugar?

Is it a canny bit of free TV advertising or is he actually getting himself a security blanket (in the form of a salary) in case things don’t actually work out? Lord Sugar – you should have asked about that.

5) How will it scale?

This was the big one for me and I have saved the best ’til last.

The whole pitch from Mark was ultimately based on himself and what a super star he is. I like him and am sure he would be a great guy to have a beer with, but that doesn’t scale. Without the advent of human cloning, he will only be able to do so much and that will limit the potential for growth if the business is based on him.

The agency promise was one of a personal touch. Again, that is great but it introduces real challenges in terms of growth as you are entirely reliant on your team. This is an industry where recruitment and retention is very tough. There are lots of people about, but finding the good ones is the challenge.

Of the various challenges that running Browser Media presents, building our fantastic team is always the one that keeps me awake at night (but also the one that gives me most pleasure and makes me most proud). I am actually very similar to Mark in that I want to create an agency that has a personal touch and clients enjoy working with us rather than a faceless machine. Believe me, that is much easier said than done and it takes time. I just don’t feel that Mark has thought that one through.

One way to address the challenge is to outsource some of the work – one of the options that Mark mentioned. This make sense from a business perspective, as you can add capacity with very little risk, but it is at odds with Mark’s vision of a personal service and you instantly lose control over the quality of work that you are undertaking for your clients. The account handlers will just become front men and won’t actually have a working knowledge of what is going on with the account (not the way we do things here at Browser Media). To be honest, that is not uncommon and is why the industry has such a tainted reputation but Mark will be killing off one of the USPs that he touts if that is the route he chooses.


So there you have it, some morning after thoughts from someone who was in Mark’s shoes a decade ago. Probably a little too close to things to be entirely impartial but I remain surprised at Alan Sugar’s choice and can’t help but feel that it won’t end with champagne glasses. I wish Mark well and would always be happy to have that beer with him if he was interested.


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