- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

Episode 1: Read Me A Story

Episode One In Brief

The eagerly-awaited first episode of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart on NBC offered us far more than Trump-O-Nomics female clothing. It was, and will surely continue to be, all about Martha’s business sense and sensibilities—the perfect opportunity for millions of Martha-graphers to test their knowledge of their favorite domestic diva.

On the surface, it appears that Martha’s Apprentice format mimics The Donald’s. After all, they both start out as a series of contests featuring 16 folks vying to be Mini-Me to a mogul. But that is where the similarities stop. While Trump is all about the numbers and the power, Martha’s contests turn on quality content and consumer connection. While Trump loves someone who can duke it out in the boardroom, Martha does not even have a boardroom. Instead she has her terminations happen in an open conference room, a happier place to make a grim task seem somehow more Martha. Trump sends folks packing down an elevator to an awaiting taxi, never to be seen again. Martha softens the blow. Her rejects do not fail, they just fail to fully succeed. And each episode ends with Martha herself writing the loser a personal, hand-written note of condolence.

Episode One features the group splitting into two teams, the creatives versus the corporates. The creatives name themselves Matchstick (“the start of something big”). The corporates picked Primarius (“first in everything”). This week’s task, judged by two childrens’ book publishers from Random House, is to attractively re-write and re-package a traditional children’s fairy tale into a new book, then illustrate and read the book to a group of first graders. The winning team, Martha instructs, will be the one that best connects with the kids.

Under project manager and real-life creative director Jeff, Matchstick chooses to re-tell Hanzel and Gretel. Primarius, led by sports magazine publisher Dawna, picks Jack and the Beanstalk. Immediately, the sparks fly from Matchstick because Jeff’s heavy-handed approach does not sit well with his very needy creative team. When professional writer Dawn requires complete silence for her creative juices to flow, Jeff kicks her off the creative team and re-writes the fairy tale himself, using a rhyming format and heavily adult themes that promise to both baffle the first graders and offend his teammates.

Primarius’ Dawna, on the other hand, starts off with half the team writing and illustrating the book while the other half holds a focus group to find out which team member best connects with kids and should be the designated reader. Primarius makes two winning moves by picking charismatic, kidlike Howie to play Jack, and by writing a wacky-enough-for-kids version of Jack and the Beanstalk that has the stalk growing down instead of up.

When the Random House team declares Matchstick’s story the loser, project manager Jeff picks loudmouthed Jim and noise-phobic Dawn to join him in the conference room for Martha’s first-ever Apprentice termination. When Martha gives Jeff the gentle shove off the S.S. Stewart, she damns him with the obvious—the bossy leader’s story failed to connect with the consumer—the ultimate sin in Marthaland. Meanwhile, the winning Primarius team win a sushi-chef-prepared feast in Martha’s TV test kitchen.

The MarthaNomics Lessons of Episode 1

Lesson 1: Connect with your customers first, ask questions later. For Martha, the sin that is worse than any other—including bad behavior and laziness—is failing to create a product that your customers like. She surely would have forgiven Jeff’s boorish manner had he written the world’s most charming kids book. But Jeff’s unappealing product made his slamdance social skills even less attractive, and Martha first hand-written termination note began with “Dear Jeff.”

Lesson 2: Of Martha’s two “eyes and ears” hench-people—her company chairman Charles Koppelmann and her daughter Alexis—watch Koppelmann’s choices the closest. Ice Queen Alexis advised her mother to boot thin-skinned Dawn. But Martha followed Sir Charles’ pre-conference room advice to make Jeff the show’s first loser.

Lesson 3: Creativity is in the eye of the audience, not the name of the creator. In declaring the “corporate” team’s creation the winner over the “creative” team’s product, Martha declared her loud-and-clear respect for the customer. As all true Marthologists know, Martha respects one thing above all else—the iron whim of the buying public.

Because the Matchstick team is simply crawling with overly-sensitive creative types, expect next week’s episode to feature lots of hysterics, radical mood swings, emotional threats and downright catty behavior. It makes for some great workplace lessons. And, of course, for great TV. Stay tuned.

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