John Coldham is an Intellectual Property lawyer who specialises in brand and design. As a partner at international law firm Gowling WLG, he has worked with some of the biggest brands in the world, advising and acting on behalf of the likes of Dyson, Unilever and Hasbro.
We were fortunate enough to chat with him about the power of trust, relationships and negotiation in the legal profession, as well as the ways in which digital media’s multi-platform nature has impacted Intellectual Property Law and brand value.
KW: What effect has the digital world had on the way people perceive intellectual property?
John: Digital media has changed everything, but people forget that it’s only part of the world. The online world has changed consumer behaviour and allowed start-ups to compete with multinationals in a way that used to be impossible.
It’s easier to flog dodgy copies over the internet than it is to get stocked by a major retailer, so there has been a rise in copycat products being sold on the likes of eBay and Amazon. Businesses have to do more to ensure these copies are stopped before they do any harm to both their brand and market.
KW: There’s been a lot of debate about intellectual property on social media, particularly regarding people reusing content without permission. What more can be done to prevent this?
John: Good question. Some people, albeit a decreasing amount, think that once you publish something on the internet, it’s free for anybody to use. That is not the case unless it specifically says so.
It’s quite useful to think about the parallels in the non-digital world. If you bought a newspaper or book, for example, would you deem it acceptable to reuse a photograph or a piece of content from it without credit? Probably not. So why would you do the equivalent on the internet?
You have to be extremely careful and people are learning that, albeit rather slowly. However, it’s important to note that the digital world is catching up. There are now some very good pieces of software that allow photographers to find people who have copied their images and go after them.
KW: In the modern world of entrepreneurship, are people too tempted to overshare their ideas and inventions on social media?
John: If you’re sharing your invention on the internet before protecting it with a patent, it’s no longer yours. I don’t think many inventors share their ideas before protecting them, but if they are, it’s a mistake. Most inventors and designers I’ve met are very wary of what they can share online.
KW: What’s the most important thing about a brand?
John: That it remains distinctive and consumers are able to instantly recognise it as being yours.
For some people, brand value is having the reputation of being the cheapest. For other people, it’s about quality, experience and heritage. There are a million different aspects, but deep down most businesses want to be likeable; they want consumers to love them.
KW: Gowling WLG produces podcasts, guides and blogs. How important is this multi-platform approach in terms of demonstrating your brand value?
John: Very important. People consume things in different ways, but we ensure they have a variety of opportunities to engage with what we do. Digital media is a window into your world and the more clients know about your business (with the help of digital), the more they can trust you’re up to the job.
The content across these channels remains largely the same, it’s just produced and shared in different ways. Therefore, the reach is boosted (geographically, and in terms of time, as people can access it when they want) but the overall investment isn’t dramatically increased.
We do the whole lot for two reasons:
1) Giving those who may not have heard of us the trust that we’ll make the right decisions for them if they ever need a brand lawyer.
2) We work within an area that people don’t necessarily know much about. This content demonstrates our experience but more importantly, makes sure people are thinking about the issues they need to be thinking about.
KW: What drove you to start producing podcasts?
John: We use podcasts because they’re a convenient way to reach broader audiences. For example, we often get the speakers at our events to record a podcast after their talks. This way, we might reach the 100 attendees in the audience, as well as a broad range of people digitally across the UK and overseas. This works particularly well for our annual London Design Festival event, which is popular both in person and online (visit Gowling WLG’s Design For Life page if you’d like to take a look).
A live event comes and goes but if you follow that with a podcast, blog or interview, you give that piece of content longevity, allowing anyone to access it and further their understanding of what we do.
KW: As a lawyer, what are the important ingredients in building strong relationships with your clients?
John: The most important thing is trust. If you’re going to a lawyer, there’s usually a lot riding on it. It might be something to do with setting up, expanding or protecting your business; all important things that, if you get wrong, can be very bad.
There are of course other trustworthy law firms that will get the answers right, but our experience in design and brand law, as well as the expertise supported by our blogs, podcasts and guides, help to demonstrate that we are on top of this area and know what we’re doing.
In addition to having that trust, you need to maintain a good relationship with clients by answering their calls regularly, being friendly, charging what you say you’re going to charge, and so on.
There’s a legal right and wrong answer to their questions, but there’s also a commercial aspect in that clients need an answer that works with how they operate. You could say: ‘sue them’, but actually the whole thing may not be worth much money. The better answer is to say: ‘you could sue them, but if I were you, I’d do this instead as it’s cheaper and your money is better off spent elsewhere.’ That’s what clients like.
KW: Legal 500 describe you as a ‘great negotiator’. What do you believe makes a great negotiator?
John: A great negotiator understands the other side’s position as well as they understand their own. If you can’t understand where the opposition is coming from, you won’t understand how far they’re prepared to go.
Negotiation is always a compromise and you need to know when to stop negotiating.
KW: How do you ensure Gowling’s UK team of 700+ lawyers works so efficiently, quickly and effectively together?
John: We work long hours quite closely together for a number of cases, so it’s really important that we get on and stand up for one another. You’re at work more than anywhere else, and the main reason I’ve stayed at Gowling since 2005 is the strength of the team.
The senior people are perfectly happy to do photocopying if it’s going to help the team and it’s that sort of collaboration, doing our best to ensure that nobody is having to stay much later than everybody else, that helps to build a strong team.
KW: What has been the most important thing in your career, something that was so important you wouldn’t be where you are without it?
John: I don’t think I could point to any one thing that has led me to where I am today – I have learnt a lot from some fantastic people over the years, but have also worked hard and been willing to try new things. There’s a lot of hard work involved in any career or project, and if you work with great people and have your ears open, you’ll learn a lot along the way.
Relationships are often at the core of everything we do in business, and that is no different in the law profession. John Coldham’s success stems from the strong connections he has made with colleagues and clients throughout his impressive career, connections that would not have been possible without the level of trust he has built through demonstrating his own brand values and that of Gowling WLG.
With competition and consumers bombarded with more and more options, trust and relationships have never been more important for a brand, something John not only recognises but demonstrates through digital media, or what he calls the “window” into his world.
Anyone who searches for Gowling WLG is reminded of the firm’s authenticity, trustworthiness and expertise through their podcasts, blog posts and social media channels, all of which come together to provide a glimpse into what clients should expect the moment they call upon John or one of his colleagues.
Very much in the same way as a potential client, my interest in John’s expertise was initially developed through such digital platforms, but it was a 45-minute conversation over the phone that really drove his brand values home. Hanging up feeling like I had made a new connection, one I could learn from and rely upon should I ever need a brand lawyer, I completely understood just how important that level of trust is.
If this blog post has opened your eyes to the importance of brand values and design or raised any concerns regarding Intellectual Property, we strongly recommend checking out Designs For Life: An Essential Overview of Design Protection, Enforcement and Exploitation.