Weekly take: EUIPO chief will feel vindicated despite leadership mess
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Weekly take: EUIPO chief will feel vindicated despite leadership mess

EUIPO headquarters in Alicante, Spain

The latest revelations suggest Christian Archambeau will leave office with his head held high from one of the messiest periods in the EUIPO’s history

It’s now nearly six months since the EUIPO management chose not to renew Christian Archambeau’s term as executive director. But, despite watching what has been an unprecedented saga at the top of the EU trademark and design agency, only now do we have the biggest revelation of all.

This week, my colleague Rory O’Neill exclusively revealed that Archambeau was voted out despite receiving the clear backing of Jorma Hanski, the chair of the EUIPO’s management board. In a note dated October 31, Hanski praised Archambeau’s performance and advised the board to approve his candidacy for a second term.

The board, which then met in November, went on to reject Archambeau. The Belgian national fell short of the required two-thirds majority after receiving just 11 out of 30 votes. He remains in post until September, when his tenure officially ends.

Since that fateful meeting, we have witnessed an incredible chain of events, starting with some of Archambeau’s powers being removed last month after he filed a claim for compensation over the non-renewal of his contract (another O’Neill exclusive).

Then, just weeks later, it emerged that the Council of the EU hadn’t even received the assessment that was handed to the board. It needs this appraisal before making the final call on Archambeau’s future and has been chasing the EUIPO for it (kudos to O’Neill, again).

Just to be clear, that’s five whole months since Hanski produced his positive review of Archambeau’s performance. Why was this assessment not sent to the council in that time? In fact, we still don’t know if it has been.

And of course, why didn’t the board vote to approve him? More on that later.

In the meantime, there is theoretically still a remote chance that Archambeau could be granted a second term if the council were to side with the assessment.

Strange times

While questions remain over the apparent lack of due process, and after what must have been one of the most turbulent periods in the EUIPO’s history, the man at the centre of this sorry tale looks set to leave office in September with his head held high.

I’d like to make it clear at this point that I don’t take sides in this drama. But I can offer a perspective based on the public record, my interview with Archambeau last year, and, of course, having been deeply involved in our recent coverage.

When I interviewed Archambeau in person last summer, it was the first time I had met him. I remember thinking how refreshing it was to hear him talk so openly and honestly: there was no generic management speak and no evasive answers like you might expect from some leaders.

All in all, the mood music was good, and everything seemed rosy in Alicante.

Like many others, I suspect, I am shocked by everything that has happened since. Much of it would have seemed like a page-turning yet far-fetched story at the time.

One of the main reasons thought to be behind Archambeau’s non-endorsement is the 12% drop in EU trademark (EUTM) filings last year, only the fourth time EUTMs have dipped since their launch in 1996 and the biggest year-on-year fall for 20 years.

The real story here is the financial consequences: fewer filings generate lower revenues and in turn less money for EU national offices to administer the EUTM system. These are known as offsetting payments.

Without doubt, Archambeau will be dismayed by those numbers and the saga that has engulfed the office. But, ultimately, I believe people will view this as a tainted ending to an otherwise solid stint as office chief – a notion that appears to chime with the backing from Hanski.

Measures of success

First, it is worth remembering that Archambeau led the office through a double whammy of major crises that were unexpected and out of his control – the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Add record levels of inflation and a big reduction in Chinese EUTM filings into the mix, and you can start to see what a challenging period it has been for him and the office.

When we sat down last summer, I was impressed to learn how the office had assisted Ukrainian IP officials as their country was being invaded by Russia. The EUIPO even replicated the Ukraine IP office’s data on its servers to insure against cyber-attack or even destruction.

I was also struck by how bold Archambeau’s vision was. He had certainly thought deeply about the EUIPO’s place in the intellectual property world.

He firmly believed the EUIPO should expand its remit to include geographical indications, domain names and supplementary protection certificates. Even standard essential patents were potentially on the wish list – something that has since been confirmed.

I particularly liked how candid he was about other issues too, including youth attitudes towards IP.

I’ve always felt some policymakers don’t fully admit the scale of the challenge in improving understanding of and respect for IP when trotting out various survey findings. But while he said there was a mixed picture and improvements had been made, he admitted it would take years to change perceptions on counterfeiting, likening it to smoking.

There are many ways to judge a leader’s success, of course, and the number of yearly filings – one of the main issues in this story – is just one. Yes, it is highly important, and yes, national offices and other stakeholders rightly want to see growth year on year, but it’s not the be all and end all.

Of course, the drop in filings could simply have been used against Archambeau to mask other – and as yet undetermined – reasons for removing him.

Regardless, the office is without doubt widely respected, and I don’t think that has changed in the past four and a half years of Archambeau’s leadership. The EUIPO is well regarded for its innovation and efficiency, and the EUTM remains one of the most valuable and trusted legal tools for companies from all around the world.

What’s more, it seems unlikely if not remote that anyone else leading the office would have successfully staved off the impact of once-in-a-generation forces such as a pandemic and war in Europe. Don’t forget that the most recent decline in EUTMs, in 2008, coincided with a major world event in the form of the financial crisis.

As with any evolving news story, all eyes will naturally be on the coming days, weeks and months. But, if I had to put my predictions on the line, I’d say that Archambeau will feel vindicated in years to come despite what has been an unflattering saga for all involved.

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