UK Trademark Firm of the Year: Stobbs IP Limited
Q: Can you tell us about your trademark practice (eg, team size, practice focuses and key individuals)?
A: Stobbs is a niche IP practice, specialising in trademarks and brands. We intend to be a centre of excellence for advice relating to brands and to offer a wide range of services around brands. In addition to our core offering of managing trademark portfolios and providing strategic advice on brand management, we have a large solicitor team advising on all aspects of brand disputes and commercialisation, a rapidly growing online brand enforcement team, our own investigation firm and a recently acquired brand valuation company.
In seven years of its existence, Stobbs has grown from 18 to more than 100 employees, including 75 attorneys and paralegals, making it one of the largest trademark practices in the United Kingdom. Leading individuals include Julius Stobbs, Geoff Steward, Emma Pettipher, Chris Sleep, Chris Hawkes, Louise Goodsell, Claire Breheny and Richard Ferguson.
Q: The firm seeks to be the world’s leading brand advisory company. How does it set about developing and evolving the skill sets of team members in order to offer such a 360-degree and embedded view of intellectual property?
A: As we have grown, we have been able to ensure that we develop deep expertise in each of the areas that we cover through either focus and training, or acquisitions. We make sure that we have people with thorough knowledge of each area – we are not arrogant enough to think that we can all be experts in everything. However, rather than seeing this breadth as a possible weakness, our view is that you cannot be an effective adviser on brands without it.
Without a proper understanding of the wider offerings and context of brands, it is impossible to provide the highest-level advice. To that end, we work with our teams to understand the top-line detail and applications of all our functions and to ensure that we have the right communication channels in place so that our clients always have quick access to the experts that they need.
Q: Employee training and support is identified as a focus of the organisation. How do you structure this given the diverse range of skill sets required – and how is success measured?
A: We commit to providing the best training in the industry. Our programme for junior employees is structured around their qualifications and augmented by case sessions and external speakers. We extend these sessions to all our teams and our clients.
We recognise that to be successful, our teams need to go beyond exam qualifications. They also need the right client and commercial focus, the knowledge of our functions, the ability to prioritise, plan and still be flexible, and the ability to communicate without waffle.
We have built our own internal qualification to test these other factors and that represents the transition into becoming an intangible asset manager.
Left to right: Julius Stobbs, principal, and Richard Ferguson, IA manager
Q: One area of focus is asset valuation. Is there rising demand for such services and why are they so important for rights holders?
A: The shape of business is continuing to change, with a much higher proportion of value coming from branding than it did 20 or 30 years ago. Companies are recognising this because of the pure scale of intellectual property and brands, and the increasing regulatory pressures. According to The Times, over 50% of enterprise value for worldwide public limited companies is attributed to intangible assets – those sorts of figures cannot be ignored.
Companies are waking up to the fact that you need to make good, informed and consistent decisions in terms of investment and resource allocation – especially with budget constraints becoming more and more severe. You cannot do that unless you are monitoring and measuring the value of your brands.
Until now, this exercise has been prohibitively expensive and reserved for acquisitions, tax requirements and similar situations. It should instead be used as part of a balanced scorecard.
Q: With branding so important, how does the firm nurture and protect its own identity?
A: Our mission is to become the world’s leading brand advisory company, so necessarily, we give a lot of thought to our brand. We use it to communicate our differences – our offering and approach, our category and our company culture. We stand out in the industry and so does our brand.
We have defined intangible asset management as our category because of our unrivalled breadth of expertise and we continue to innovate and grow. Other companies will want to operate in this space, but we were first and we are committed to leading it.
Since our formation, Stobbs has been a very different company to other law firms. You can see how different by looking at “What Makes Us, Us” (www.iamstobbs.com/culture#us).
We will only succeed if our culture keeps pace with our growth, which is why we place so much focus on being the best company to work for, bar none.
Q: What particular factors and achievements have made the firm successful over the past year?
A: The success of the firm since its inception has been built on a clearly defined ethos and approach. We aim to offer practical, commercial advice which is commercially led with no agenda and no jargon. We aim to be a virtual in-house team for our clients and to offer an unrivalled breadth of services around brands.
In the past year, this overall approach has been particularly enhanced by the expansion of our lawyer team and the acquisition of a brand valuation company.
The addition of senior litigator Geoff Steward has enabled us to take on much higher profile cases, including successfully representing Liverpool Football Club in the recent New Balance v Liverpool Football Club kit sponsorship case.
Brand valuation has further increased our breadth of functions and has already generated huge interest with our clients – particularly at our winter seminar in November 2019.
Q: How do trademark teams at leading attorney firms need to evolve in order to remain successful?
A: No one knows what the future holds. The only thing that we can be certain about is that it will be different and some of those changes will not be what anyone expects.
Attorney firms have to embrace change and to remain open minded. We need to understand that very high fees for fairly basic things will not survive and so see past them to other approaches. The key preparation is to be open minded about what it means to be an attorney.
Q: What challenges are being cited most frequently by clients?
A: First, budget constraints. All our clients tell us that they face growing challenges within their legal teams and have to manage these with increasing budget constraints. We characterise ourselves as a virtual in-house team. The idea is that we have the range of expertise of an external private practice firm but that we operate as if we are part of the team. Accessibility, integration, internal knowledge, clarity and simplicity of advice, and transparency of cost all contribute to this unique approach. We have designed our method to focus on clients and to meet their developing demands.
Second, the continuing rapid growth of online infringement. This is not just getting bigger, but also more complex and more international. Concerns about China have escalated to include South Korea, Turkey and Russia, among others.
Q: Is it getting easier or harder to keep on top of evolving brand risk in the online sector and how do you stay one step ahead of infringers?
A: The fact is that you will never be ahead of the infringers. However, good strategy, smart investigation, a range of escalation options and operational execution can certainly limit their impact – even as the scale of online brand risk continues to rise.
On the technical side, more and more platforms are available that are directed at this problem and designed to provide brand owners with data on the infringements. However, these tools will only support brand owners so far – they need to be coupled with specialisation, focus and expertise to get results. This has been a focus at Stobbs for four years already and we are continuing to build our capability in this space.
Q: Finally, if you could make one change to the trademark world, what would it be?
A: I would like to see commercial teams recognise the importance of trademarks and intellectual property more broadly. Intellectual property should not be planted within legal functions – instead, it should be a driver of commercial decision making (eg, when considering risk, resource allocation versus assets). Are companies doing enough to secure their biggest assets? Are they leveraging them to their advantage? Or are assets just sat dormant and misunderstood on company balance sheets?
I would encourage business leaders to consider the opportunities that their brands and portfolios offer them and look to take advantage of these. Could this offer them some relief from austerity and be an engine for growth? By understanding intellectual property and recognising it as an asset to curate and in which to invest, commercial and legal functions can break out of their silos and collaborate in order to drive success.