Founded in 1976, L’Occitane en Provence is an international brand of body, face, fragrances and home products. The group has more than 2,900 stores (more than 1,400 are our own stores) in 90 countries and a portfolio of around 2,500 trademarks. I joined the business in 2009 as group legal director shortly before the company was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and since then the business has expanded rapidly.
In 2009 the legal function had three staff and outsourced almost everything. Intellectual property work, primarily trademark registration, was largely handled by a good middle-ranking outside law firm (the firm did not deal with broader issues such as domain names and anti-counterfeiting, which we kept in-house). However, it became important to be more efficient and cost-conscious so I started to look for an alternative solution.
I had worked in the past with Volker Spitz, whose Brandstock Group had grown considerably over the years in reach and expertise. I needed someone I could trust with capable staff able to deliver what we needed. The key issue for me was, and still is, dealing with spikes in activity, such as those brought on by a new product launch or acquisition of another business. In my view, it is simply not possible to manage such inevitable, and yet sporadic, peaks in demand relying solely on in-house resources.
My previous employers managed everything in-house, which meant huge responsibility to meet deadlines and manage documentation while constantly being bedevilled by staffing issues. My approach is to outsource as much of the administrative burden as possible so that my relatively small legal team and I can focus on what is most important and where we can make a difference.
We carried out a detailed analysis of all the IP-related issues we had to address and decided what we should deal with internally and what should be outsourced. We have kept hold of trademark searches and IP contracts while all the rest, in particular administrative work, has been gradually absorbed by Brandstock, with which we now have daily contact. We make full use of the Brandstock agent network (and so benefit from Brandstock’s purchasing power) and have access to the various Brandstock online platforms when needed.
Since 2009 my team has grown to seven members with three focused solely on IP-related matters. We deal with the company’s marketing department and aim to provide it with quick assessments of issues as they arise and provide concise reporting. Brandstock deals with all the portfolio administration issues that flow from decisions taken by the company, allowing my team to focus on what helps the company to grow. My main focus is on general business and mergers and acquisitions, including the clarification of fiscal issues.
IP is very important for L’Occitane but I consider it to be better managed with the help of specialists in the field.
The right method
Outsourcing can be handled in many different ways, including micro-managing everything that an outside provider does. That is not sensible in my view, especially when it involves the technicalities inherent in IP management and so much hangs on maintaining IP rights. I believe it makes more sense to identify a truly proficient provider and then trust it to do what it does best, with a clear understanding of service and charging levels. It is entirely possible, and indeed sensible, to delegate responsibility to specialist outside providers and trust that they will provide the quality control needed.
By choosing the right provider, and delegating responsibility for what does not need to be done internally, my team and I have fewer headaches and can focus on where we can best help the business. We have a close working relationship with our chosen provider and yet maintain strict boundaries with regard to who does what and who is accountable.
Technology closes the distance to some degree, but it is relationship that matters most. It is vital to select an organisation where the staff are given permission to take a personal interest in, and responsibility for, client work: this is something that makes the relationship rewarding for all and delivers better results.
We cannot expect to match the process and project management capabilities of a specialist provider. If we attempt to do the work in-house we will never have the staff levels needed to deal with the peaks and yet still have costly headcount to recruit, train and manage.
Outsourcing makes sense, especially for administering trademark portfolios, and there are good reasons for embracing the benefits fully and deliberately.
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*The opinions in this article are those of the author and should not be taken as the opinions of L’Occitane.