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How to talk money and patents with your C-suite (open access)

Counsel at the MIP International Women’s Leadership Forum 2020 gave trusted advice for talking patents with a brand-focused C-suite

Panellists from Richemont, Mars, Spectris and British American Tobacco shared insights on how to start a conversation with company executives on patent value, at this year’s MIP International Women’s Leadership Forum in London on January 30. 

Unlike technology or pharmaceutical companies, which rely heavily on patents, the panellists all came from brand-focused businesses that traditionally depend on copyright and trademarks to protect their products.

But as their business models shift, panellists said that patents are becoming more important to their IP strategy. Their best advice to other women in the boardroom who need to communicate the value of their patent portfolio was simple: tell a good story.

Long story short

Sheila Henderson, chief IP counsel at Richemont in the UK, demonstrated the value of storytelling from working for a luxury company protecting top brands such as Cartier and Montblanc. She told the conference members that the first thing they needed to do when talking to the C-suite was to understand the audience.

“This will sound terribly basic, but the data points have to be relevant. We are telling stories with our brands so I also need to create legal stories. It’s about using the relative data at our fingertips, so I present samples of counterfeits and examples of what is on social media,” she said.

Emily O’Neill, chief counsel of IP and litigation at instrumentation company Spectris in the UK, said that she gets her board to listen by illustrating a story of how IP supports the company. She told the audience that her difficulty in protecting IP was complicated because she had many divisions in her company, which made knowing her competitors challenging.

“Being able to illustrate a story of how IP supports the company is important. To get our board to understand where our risk lies and manage that appropriately has been a work in progress,” she said.

“After we work out a consistent vocabulary, we can then talk about how IP can support the technology strategy. For example, looking at our brands and how we are stopping counterfeits in our online business in Asia has specifically helped win over our C-suite.”

Communication challenges

Lizzie Morters, patent counsel at British American Tobacco (BAT) in London, said that one of her challenges in communicating IP value to her C-suite was that her company has morphed from a traditional cigarette business that relied on brand protection to one that was technology driven and protected by patents.

For her company, this means relying on innovation to stay one step ahead of the competition.

“Right now is a very volatile landscape for tobacco because we are moving away from the traditional cigarettes. Before, we had a patent portfolio and we knew who our competitors were,” she said.

“Patents have become much more of a commercial tool, when they weren’t so much before. We are constantly having discussions with our C-suite that we need to increase our portfolio and match our competitors. I have to explain that if we don’t keep up, we won’t have the tools available to be competitive.”

From Nestlé to Mars

Amira Mukhtar, European counsel for IP at Mars, also works for a well-known company that relies heavily on trademarks to protect its innovations. With many different chocolate bars on the market, customers recognise the trademarked logos of her company’s different confectioneries.

This does not mean, however, that patents are any less important to her company. “For sure, consumers don’t buy a Snickers bar because it is patented. They associate it with the brand and the logo, which is not to undersell the patent because they might buy a KitKat bar because it’s crispy,” she said.

She explained that in her previous role at Nestlé, the board understood the value of innovation to the company and that filing patents for trailblazing technologies was an exciting part of her job.

One example she gave was patenting a natural sugar that would help her company keep up with customer pressure to have more health and wellness products.

“I was working at Nestlé a few years ago and it had a good understanding of IP on its board. We had regular visits of the R&D sites, which gave scientists the opportunity to showcase their inventions. There was always a question about filing patents, and they had a good understanding of the technological developments,” she said.

Sob story

The panellists shared the belief that as companies become more technology driven, more money should be allocated in the budget for patent protection.

Henderson from Richemont said that one method she used to communicate to her C-suite that her budget needed to increase was to compare the money spent on patents to other areas of the budget.

“I find it really hard to present patent data in an interesting way, but we have benchmarked it against influencers and it is terrifying that we spend more on patents than we do on influencers,” she said.

“If you tell the board you pay somebody £20,000 to go to a dinner, it can get them to think about increasing your patent budget.” She added that she tried to get in front of her board twice a year to make the point of how her company was doing compared to its competitors and to be sure it was winning all the IP fights it needed to.

“I tell the board that if it wants to cut the budget, that will mean fewer raids. We will reduce the online takedowns by 10%. Then we tell the C-suite that the business can make a choice, and sometimes the budget is reassessed. Sometimes they think you can do more with less, which, of course, you can’t.”

She added that while nobody is perfectly happy with their IP budget, what a lawyer does with the allocated money can be one way of proving their talent.

“I take the view that a mediocre lawyer can do well with a huge budget. It’s when the budget is cut and you need to prioritise that people really begin to shine,” she said.

For Morters at BAT, her struggle is getting her C-suite to understand that shifting its business strategy from being brand focused to innovation driven means getting her executives to fund their patent division.

“Now they want to utilise the technology to build the brand and this means they have a very different take on how to use the IP. They need to give us more money,” she said.

Whether in-house teams present their IP strategy through social media stories or tales of counterfeit infringement, the important thing, it seems, is to present IP in an easily understandable way that will make the C-suite sit up and pay attention.

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