You have won international acclaim as chief executive of Rouse – what has been the secret of your success?
Three interconnected thoughts come to mind. First, I like being in change environments where new value is created as a result of disruption. I believe that the industry of IP professionals has not yet experienced the kind of external challenge or examination that brings about real innovation. The IP industry has insulated itself from that change process, which places greater responsibility on its leaders to create the pressure to change from within. Second, our partnership group comprises more women than men. Most are from Asian ethnic backgrounds and many are non-fee earners, including from finance, HR and operations. Building diversity within our partnership group is something that we have focused on in the last five years and is, I believe, the main reason for our recent success. There is far more we have to do, particularly at the highest levels of our organisation, but I am confident that we will make these changes happen in the near-term future. Finally, I have learnt a huge amount in the last year about what it means to empower people in roles that have clear direction, accountability and authority. I believe that partnerships have a lot to learn from corporations that have built dynamic but effective systems of interconnected accountabilities. This process of empowering people through effective delegation of accountability and authority is what can unleash the full power of diversity.
What does inspirational leadership mean to you?
I am inspired most by leaders who embrace diverse perspectives and who see the world as complex and interconnected, and yet at the same time can connect with people through simple and meaningful storytelling. I recently listened to a podcast by Kate Raworth, the author of Doughnut Economics, and was inspired in exactly this way by her message. Listening to her, I sense that she understands the complexity and size of the inequality problem, which she has grasped through deep engagement with all parts of a diverse community, and yet her solutions and messages are simple and resonate with a broad audience. I think the IP industry needs more leaders with this quality. We have made the subject and language of intellectual property so specialised and complex that most people struggle to understand its meaning and impact. Yet the successful protection, transfer and utilisation of intellectual property sits at the heart of so many of the world’s big problems, particularly climate change. I hope that our industry is big enough to open itself up to leaders from the outside, like Kate. That is when it will start to realise its full potential.
How has the UK IP scene changed since you took on the mantle of chief executive in 2013?
In my view, the legal and IP profession in the United Kingdom has changed little compared to China and other parts of the world, like Australia, where the changes have been much greater. Where I have seen real change is where private and public capital have started to play an increasing role. I see this most in that part of the value chain connected to technology and data, in areas such as search, portfolio management, maintenance and renewals, where we have seen significant consolidation happening as investors look to drive scale and integration of offerings. In Australia, we have seen public markets transform the landscape for professional IP services, a trend that will probably increase in other markets like China and the United Kingdom. I envisage this opening up to external capital as necessary disruption. The IP industry, as a whole, has been hugely underinvested and fragmented as a result. That is not good for IP owners.
What are your top tips for building trust and understanding with clients?
The first tip I always give to people I work with is to speak to the client when there is a problem. Too many people hide behind emails or social media and lose that opportunity. I never thought I would say this but having a conversation with a client is a great and simple way to differentiate yourself from others and build trust.
Second, get to know the person as well as the client. Clients are people and the more we seek to understand them as such, the more likely we are to be able to help them with their problems. That does not mean becoming best friends, it means looking out for and learning about different characteristics, perspectives and experiences and recognising how these relate to the way a problem is perceived. This is an area where firms should do more training and capability building. Too much focus is placed on the technical/hard skills and not enough on communication and empathy building.
A third tip, which is particularly relevant to my colleagues based in China, is to try to disassociate yourself as a professional from the personal and political. At a time when governments and media are pushing us to see the world through an increasingly binary and polarised lens, our job as professionals is to help our clients to see the IP system for what it is, not what others tell us it should be. Only that way can we help our clients make the very best decisions for their business. This is hard to put into practice and requires leaders to create safe environments where constructive discussions and good training are possible.
Previously you led Rouse China and are still very involved in business in Asia – what are some of the key differences between the IP systems of the East and West, of which clients should be aware?
I think that the terms ‘East’ and ‘West’ risk oversimplifying the systems differences. Within Europe you have huge variations between systems and languages, for example of the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and Hungary. Within Asia and even within China you have the same systems disparities, particularly as you travel west and north from the developed centres around Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. I encourage clients not to look at ‘the East’ and expect a coherent IP system, just as I encourage my colleagues in Asia not to look at ‘the West’ and expect the same.
Those who come from mature legal systems struggle to understand that there are still a vast number of irrational IP actors, particularly in the less developed areas of China. Yet in big cities such as Shanghai, Hangzhou and Shenzhen, you have some of the most sophisticated, strategic and fast-moving actors in the world. Learning how to reconcile this strategically and navigate such a complex IP landscape is one of the most important keys to success.
Many aspects of the IP system in Asia, particularly China, are still in an immature phase of development, governments are still working at a policy-shaping level and users are still learning what works and what does not. In this environment there is still the opportunity for bigger actors to shape the system, especially when they work together in a constructive way. I see this particularly in areas such as online protection, licensing, civil procedure and in fast-changing technical fields such as AI and biotech.
How would you characterise the IP transactions market in China right now?
I would say that it represents the single biggest IP opportunity in the world right now, but at the same time I would say that there are few faster places to kill your career! By this, I mean that you should not try to tackle this opportunity, unless you have a very good team of capable and experienced people and the support to test and fail small. I do not believe that China has answered the question itself as to what sort of transactions environment and system it wants to build for itself. It is still in the mode of experimenting and policy testing, which creates opportunities for early adopters, but bear-traps for the ill-prepared.
What, for you, are the hallmarks of a world-class IP strategy?
I am increasingly interested in the relationship between strategy and organisational systems capability. No matter what the strategy, its quality is ultimately defined by the ability of the organisation to implement it successfully. Many of the entities with which we work develop great strategies but discover one or two years down the road that they did not have the people with the right understanding of intellectual property, or the underlying systems and processes to enable leaders to implement effectively across the organisation. Strategies grind to a halt and do not succeed for reasons of organisation failure, rather than for any lack of quality in the strategy itself.
Which of your cases or deals has been the most memorable?
My very first project at Rouse was in 1997 for one of the world’s biggest brand owners. The client had a highly dispersed IP function in China that was spread across 13 joint ventures. We were tasked with the job of centralising the team within the holding company, organising their function within the wider organisation, creating roles and developing processes that we trained them on. We handed over the team to the client after two years and I still see news of it operating very successfully today, albeit with different people now who have no knowledge of the origins of the team.
Can you tell us about the Rouse Ventures programme, and why such initiatives play a crucial role in the IP ecosystem?
Key business decisions depend on reliable and easily accessible data. IP managers and their teams are just as much in need of this data as the rest of an organisation. Combining a focus on data analysis with the knowledge and experience we have gained over the past 30 years, Rouse has developed a suite of tools that can be used alone or to complement the advice our teams provide across the firm.
Rouse Ventures runs across the entire business and aims to foster innovation, particularly where we see data and technology converging to enable faster and better decision making for our clients. The Ventures programme also brings together internal and external resources to help accelerate the development and commercialisation of innovative new products, some of which are now at the point of scaling up. We regard Ventures as essential to the enabling of what we call Horizon One (short-term impact) innovation, as well as what we see on Horizon Three (long-term impact).
These data-led products include CIELA, which gathers data from IP judgments in China to provide rights owners with information for patent enforcement strategies in China; CLIPMATE, the world’s first calculator to track greenhouse gas emissions incurred in protecting and enforcing IP rights worldwide and CHORUS, which provides brand protection teams with the data to run successful enforcement programmes.
Luke Minford has been CEO of IP services business Rouse since 2013. He previously led Rouse China, the group’s largest business, which has expanded into new markets in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa since Mr Minford took charge, alongside new service areas including consultancy and digital law. His experience, together with an upbringing in China, informs his expertise, bridging the gap for business owners between the IP systems of East and West.