As one of the youngest practices in your field, Stobbs has grown rapidly over the past few years. How has your management style changed in response to this?
When I founded Stobbs back in 2013, we had a team of 18 people. Now our team has grown to 110, there have been some adjustments. What has not changed is our ethos and approach; we have worked very hard to nurture the qualities that made us special as a smaller firm so that we can continue to apply them to a much larger one.
For me, contact with clients is critical to understand their issues, concerns and priorities. At an operational level, I want to be involved in these conversations, but it also gives me an understanding of where I want to take the firm from a strategic point of view. We may be young, but I am exceptionally proud of the great capability that we have built and are continuing to build.
I am there to coach and support the team in building our up-front strategy, creating an aligned plan of action with our clients and efficiently executing this plan. I know that our clients are in very capable and motivated hands from a day-to-day perspective, and I have the right level of oversight.
What is the biggest career challenge that you have faced and what can others learn from how you overcame it?
While I have been delighted about how our offering has been received by clients, at the early stages of setting up Stobbs, it presented difficulties.
I had to explain to clients that we could do better than companies established for over a century and to banks that disrupting this stable, traditional industry would be successful.
I am always wary about lessons, but I think that the following two are difficult to argue with:
- Find and retain a progressive, supporting bank manager and invest in that relationship. They are part of your essential team, provide critical challenge and valuable support. We have that in Dan Lyles at HSBC, and we know that we are fortunate to have him, so this is a nice platform to recognise him beyond a firm handshake and paying on time!
- You have to be clear about your strategy, approach and differences, be able to communicate these simply and consistently, and effectively tailor this to have the biggest impact with your audience. It is part salesmanship, part showmanship – but based on absolute conviction.
The firm has been praised by a number of IP publications and was recently awarded UK Trademark Firm of the Year by WTR. What has been the key to this success?
Two aspects: our approach to what we do, and how we work with our clients.
When we launched Intangible Asset Management last year, we codified our approach into five statements about how we work:
- Issues are viewed through the commercial rather than legal lens.
- Trademarks and intellectual property are handled in a better way, by experts who are legally trained yet commercially driven.
- IP expertise is blended with a knowledge of business, a passion for brands and a practical approach to problem solving.
- Legal reassurance and competitive advantage is achieved with a down-to-earth approach that thrives in the grey but always speaks in black and white.
- A top-end legal service does not break the bank.
Clients demand fast, practical, commercial and cost-effective advice. They want value and service provided on their terms – and that is what we aim to deliver. This proposition has had traction and is valued by clients of all types – from small local businesses to large multinationals.
We characterise how we work as ‘virtual in-house’. The idea is that we have the range of expertise of an external private practice firm but operate as if we are part of the team. Accessibility, integration, internal knowledge, clarity and simplicity of advice, transparency of costs (including things that encourage more contact such as free meetings and calls, and all-encompassing retainers) all contribute to this unique approach. Our whole approach is designed to be client focused and to meet these developing demands.
Your firm philosophy is to seize the initiative. How can trademark practitioners be more proactive in their brand enforcement efforts?
We put a big emphasis on getting to know our clients – recognising that the more we can understand, the more we can help, and the more we can challenge. We can see the issues and blockages that clients face. Our role is to use our breadth of expertise to overcome them – and that means that we might have to anticipate the need or even to build that expertise as we go.
In this way, rather than shying away from challenges, we embrace them and create a better solution and build a greater level of expertise too. Indeed, we feel that it is impossible to provide the highest level of advice without a proper appreciation of this breadth. Without it, you would only be treating the symptoms of brand issues. It is this holistic approach that enables us to optimise brand value for clients and build solutions that have not just instant results, but lasting ones too.
What is the secret to effective communication both within the IP team and with external clients?
How we have structured the firm makes a big difference – it is much more akin to a technology or consulting firm than a law firm.
We have a series of client-owning autonomous groups with cross-function teams of attorneys, paralegals and support teams. Each client will have met not only me, but the whole team as well. They are aligned team members according to the task. This makes internal communication both clear and efficient.
I talked earlier about our ‘virtual in-house’ approach and I think that this proximity, intimacy and transparency is crucial for building trust. That trust enables the right conversations, which are sometimes challenging and difficult but always in the spirit of optimising the value of our clients’ brands.
Understanding the value of intellectual property is essential. How can IP practitioners help to raise awareness within companies as well as the wider community?
This is a real issue and one with which the client-side industry struggles. We have been seeking to raise awareness of this for the past 18 months or so.
I think that everyone gets this from a strategic and macro-economic perspective. Companies recognise that increasingly crowded markets make any competitive advantage through innovation, know-how and confidential information more important. They also make brands and reputation more important to consumers and therefore more valuable. However, companies also recognise that constant globalisation, access to online marketplaces and reducing the costs of manufacture are making it easier to copy brands, as well as providing more opportunities for businesses.
What really makes a difference is when we emphasise the value of intellectual property – and our specialist valuation team has really made a difference. When a sports club asked us to value its brand, we discovered that it was worth more than its stadium and its first-team squad. Subsequently, when we talked about the investment required to protect that brand effectively, the imperative to do this became much more important.
A key recent driver of IP awareness has been the economic effects of covid-19. Many early-stage, high-growth companies (most prominently in the London tech space) were excluded from the government’s recovery packages. When brands and intellectual property are your biggest asset, how can you use this to generate capital? To accelerate your recovery? Can you even use brand enforcement as an income generator?
This question about monetising brands is becoming an increasingly frequent one from our clients and was the subject of our Virtual Summit on Intangible Asset Monetisation in May.
You have a lot of experience in inter partes proceedings at the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO). Is there anything that you would like to change about the way that such proceedings are conducted?
I believe that the UKIPO is a fantastic institution. If all IP offices around the world had the expertise of the UKIPO, then we would be in a very good place.
It operates extremely efficiently and has a team of fantastic hearing officers that provide affordable access to a very high level of knowledge of intellectual property in general and trademarks in particular.
Such is the high esteem in which I hold the hearing officers and the access that we get compared to other countries, that I wish that the UK trademark profession would use inter partes proceedings more frequently. These proceedings represent a great opportunity for trademark attorneys to represent their clients, and I would encourage them to embrace it.
I fully appreciate that the UKIPO has a delicate balancing act in streamlining processes and ensuring that parties that do not have professional representation have access. If I were to make one change, it would be that the UKIPO is less prescriptive about how we, as practitioners, should run our cases in terms of breadth and scope of pleadings.
A large part of your practice focuses on domain name disputes and acquisitions. What are the biggest challenges that brand owners face in this area and how can they better protect their trademarks online?
Over the past 24 months, our online brand enforcement practice, led by Richard Ferguson, has been one of the fastest growing and most enquired-about functions in our business. The sector is critical to many industries, and covid-19 has made it even more important as organisations have rushed to augment and, in some cases, replace their face-to-face channels with online ones.
Criminality does not rest during a crisis. Negative agents in multiple countries have ramped up their efforts too (beyond just China and into South Korea, Russia and Turkey, as well). Compared to five years ago, there are now a range of online platforms facilitating product takedowns from websites. Too often, however, companies think that this is one-and-done. In truth, you need to couple this with highly developed investigative skills and a well-defined escalation approach with the threat of litigation to make a real difference. This identifies the root cause of the issue and a permanent solution. Otherwise it is like a hydra – cutting off one head and two more coming back to bite you.
You are a member of the Chartered Institute of Trademark Attorneys and have served on the organising committee for the INTA Annual Meeting. Why is active involvement in such organisations important for professional development?
As a global company that is primarily based in the United Kingdom, we are humble enough to know that we do not have all the answers. Listening to our in-house peers give us a critical perspective in terms of where the industry is heading in different markets, the challenges that they are facing and what they are looking for from external advisers. The sorts of discussions that we have at those events – during the sessions and in the ancillary events that we run – are critical in shaping and co-creating the potential solutions that they are asking for.
Now that the United Kingdom has officially left the European Union, what changes do you expect to see in your daily role?
For us, we have done our preparation and have our EU base fully operational, so Brexit will have a very minor impact. Our breadth of offering as part of Intangible Asset Management means that we focus on the overall strategic management of brand issues; therefore, EUIPO trademark filing and prosecution represents a small part of what we do.
My role will remain exactly the same – staying close to our clients, listening to them, understanding their issues and supporting them in finding practical and commercial solutions.
We are always looking for great people to join us, with different perspectives and complementary skills, so I suppose the only difference will be spreading that net slightly wider to support the growth of our business with our EU clients.
Julius Stobbs has an unparalleled knowledge of trademark, registered design and copyright law, which he applies in a commercial way to provide practical and proactive advice. Clients appreciate that he combines a relaxed manner with an ability to grasp key issues quickly and provide focused advice. In 2013 he founded Stobbs, now a leading brand advisory firm, advising on the company’s Intangible Asset Management – a strategic and holistic approach to optimising brand performance and IP protection.
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