Maria McGeoghan meets Rebecca Jeffery, the contestant who thinks she was fired from BBC One’s The Apprentice for not being ‘enough of a tw*t’.
Apprentice candidates come and go – but you’ll remember Rebecca Jeffery. As she departed Lord Sugar’s HQ in a taxi after being fired in week six of the BBC reality show, her musings on why her adventure was at an end were frank and funny.
“At the end, I think I went because I’m not a tw*t,” she told the camera in the taxi. “I think that’s my downfall. Haven’t been enough of a tw*t.”
“I don’t even remember saying it,” admits Jeffery, 32, one half of Fi & Becs, a successful copywriting and design company she runs with her sister, Fiona. “It was just one of those throwaway remarks that I never, ever thought would be used.”
Warm, friendly and fizzing with energy, Jeffery applied for one of the toughest TV challenges on a whim. “I always used to shout at the telly when The Apprentice was on – I love it,” she explains. “My brother-in-law is a brain surgeon and one New Year’s Eve we were egging each other on to apply – ‘You do it’, ‘No, you do it’.
“The application was relatively easy and then I went to the first lot of auditions in Manchester with around 3,000 other people. It was fun but exhausting. You have one minute to sell yourself and I think I said nice people get on in business.
“I think when they asked me about my party piece, I said I could put my whole fist in my mouth. Then you do screen tests. I think that first day was about 10 hours long.
“Amazingly I then got through to the auditions in London. It’s a real investment with the cost of trains and hotels, which you have to pay yourself.
“I didn’t think I was the standard Apprentice sort of person. I realised I kept getting through and getting through. It was exciting.”
Then came crunch time last March and Jeffery was told to wait for a make or break call from the BBC. “The phone went and I put my son on the sofa with an apple and a DVD and said ‘Don’t talk’. They told me I was in. I got it. I danced around the room.”
Then the GCHQ-style secrecy that surrounds each series of The Apprentice kicked in. “I could only tell my sister, my husband and my dad,” she says. “I had to tell everyone else that I was going to be away in China with no access to phones, texts or emails.”
The hoops Apprentice candidates have to jump through to ensure absolute secrecy are surprisingly tough, with no access to phones or the internet apart from a precious 10-minute Skype call with your family once a week. The toll this took on Jeffery is still plain to see and she gets a little bit teary recalling a particularly tough moment with her three-year-old son.
“One week on the call he wouldn’t look at me and my husband said that he always got upset when he looked at me,” she remembers. “It was hurting my heart. I thought ‘What am I doing here?’ I felt like I didn’t want to play anymore but I would never, ever quit.”
And what was life like in the luxury London mansion shared by the candidates? “I’m one of four kids, so I’m used to a lot going on around me,” she explains. “I took a lot of books and was always reading.
“When the cameras weren’t rolling, we had to sit in a room and not talk about the task. The cameras couldn’t miss a key point. I just read my book instead of staring into space.
“You can be good at business and not good at The Apprentice process. Your normal skills can’t be used.
“It’s a completely different relationship. You haven’t chosen to work with these people, but I liked them all. It’s difficult to work out how to be.”
After a particularly entertaining episode where the candidates have to collect a list of items with only the Yellow Pages as research, and a mix-up over soup and soap, Jeffery was fired and sent on her way back to her family.
“They had to film me leaving the boardroom a few times because I was grinning so much,” she reveals. “The whole boardroom thing takes about five hours to film but I really enjoyed it.
“I enjoyed being with Lord Sugar. He’s the voice of reason. I just wish I had impressed him more. I was sad that I didn’t have a brilliant moment. I lost every week, which is quite a record. Watching it back is like seeing your memories from another angle.”
Without realising it, Jeffery’s brilliant moment was that rare bit of honesty in the cab on the way home – sometimes referred to as ‘Tw*tgate’.
“I was doing my hair in the house one morning and I thought: ‘Do I have to be a tw*t?’,” she says. “That’s just not me and it’s not my business. I’m not playing. I decided to see how far I could get by just being me. That’s the best thing I could do for my business.
“You need to know who you are. You can’t have a facade. You can’t keep it up. Everyone talks about your personal brand after The Apprentice, but mine already existed. It’s just being a human.”
And that stance has paid off, with hundreds of new contacts and clients she would never have dreamed of pre-Apprentice. Jeffery has come a long way since she took the leap to set up her business.
One of four kids, she was born and brought up in Cumbria, went to Keswick School and then on to the University of Nottingham to do American and Canadian studies. “I loved it but I wondered how this was going to translate into a job,” she says. “I did a lot of research and writing and realised that I just loved writing.”
She worked in human resources for 18 months for a telecoms company, running recruitment assessment centres and was then seconded to the marketing team, which she loved. Then in 2008 she applied for the Co-operative’s graduate scheme in Manchester and worked in food and legal services before settling in the funeral service division.
“It’s a really good company,” she says. “They do 100,000 funerals a year and a lot of them have been funeral directors and you just won’t find nicer people.
“I got involved in copywriting and looking at new trends and niche areas in funerals. I loved the writing and the website development.
“I suppose people remembered this blonde nerdy girl who loved this role. It just suited me.” Jeffery worked in Co-op funerals for five years and then got pregnant in 2013, surprising friends with a christening that was also a secret wedding. When the time came to go back to work, she decided to join forces with her sister Fi – a product designer working in the nursery industry – and launch their own business offering branding, design, copywriting and websites for businesses of all sizes.
“We thought we’d give it six months to try it out,” says Jeffery. “My husband said if we could cover the costs of childcare and another £600 a month then it might work. So off we went.”
It was a good decision. They built a website, set up Twitter and Instagram accounts and started to grow, Jeffery working from her home at Altrincham in Greater Manchester and her sister from Halifax in West Yorkshire. “We got some lovely, interesting clients straight away and we now have over 120 clients from bookshops to farm shops,” Jeffery says.
Clients range from start-ups to medium-sized companies and what Jeffery calls “crazy big brands” like Matalan.
“I like to think we can create magic out of nothing,” she says proudly. She loves the power of words and demonstrated this beautifully in the final Apprentice episode when she was brought back to help eventual winner Alana launch her bakery business.
“I just listened to her talking about the things she made and loved it when she said ‘ridiculously rich’,” explains Jeffery. And a brand was born. “I’m quite proud of that,” she says. “They were Alana’s words but they just sounded right.”
Flexibility in her business is key. She always collects her son at 3pm and then continues work in the evening from 7.30pm to 10pm. “We’ve found that clients really like being able to contact us later,” she says.
The business plan she would have presented to Lord Sugar if she had got to the final was to expand her business with completely flexible working. Undaunted, she is ploughing on with her plan and recently recruited an account manager. The job description on Twitter stated: “We don’t give a monkey’s where you work”.
And her advice to anyone setting up a business? “Don’t think about it for six months – just do it. Don’t use all your energy up on planning. Start it and see what happens.”