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The Confucian ideal of turning crisis into opportunity is not as easy as it sounds, but the CEO of the International Trademark Association, Etienne Sanz de Acedo, has done just that. Here he talks to Asia Business Law Journal about his reinvention of the global flagship INTA Annual Meeting with a bold move to the virtual sphere in this pandemic year.
This year, this annus horribilis (to borrow an expression from Queen Elizabeth II), has, as trying times do, brought out the best and on occasion the worst in us. Those who lead can define their legacy in such times with decisions that in so-called normal days would not even be contemplated.
The Confucian ideal of turning crisis into opportunity is not as easy as it sounds, but there are some who make it look easy. Etienne Sanz de Acedo, CEO of the International Trademark Association (INTA), is such a person who, in more contemporary parlance, makes lemonade when given nothing but lemons.
If you are an intellectual property (IP) attorney worth your salt, or associated with the IP legal and wider business community, and have not attended an INTA Annual Meeting – well, perhaps you should have. The diverse locations each year attract thousands of registrants in a who’s who of the IP community – thought leaders, policymakers, academics, in-house counsel, hundreds of firms, top gun practitioners and up-and-coming associates all gather for a week of intellectual stimulation woven in with relaxed networking, catching up on the very latest developments from around the world, re-establishing old ties and creating new ones.
“It’s an enormous project, one easily dismissed as the week’s events fly by,” Sanz de Acedo says of the event. “I think, you know, the members do not necessarily realize how much effort goes behind the scenes in terms of putting together an Annual Meeting. It’s around 10-12,000 registrants from all over the world, so it implies, you know, hundreds of contacts with the convention centre, with the hotels, with the different venues.
“And we have a very serious due diligence exercise when we think of the [chosen event] city, we need to negotiate all the contracts. And even when you start doing something different, you need to review your programming and you might need to change that. And the credit goes to INTA staff, I think they’re phenomenal in what they do.”
For Asia this year, numerous sessions will cover the region broadly, taking place during local times and including regional updates for the Asia-Pacific.
For China members, an educational programme features a dedicated “Developing Issues in China” track of sessions conducted in Mandarin, and taking place local time (China Standard Time Zone). Indian members, meanwhile, may want to follow US and EU case law because of the impact of Brexit worldwide, along with sessions about the impact of the covid-19 pandemic and how to manage portfolios in times of crisis.
There are 12 thematic tracks to help guide registrants to sessions that meet their specific interests and needs. With sessions on crisis response and diversity and inclusion, for example, the revised programme also speaks to the times we’re living in, and current world events.
But the quality of the programme is where all similarity to previous events ends. For in 2020, as suddenly as the spread of a virus, the planning and preparations involved with this massive event all came to a crashing halt. Plans a year in the making for an April meeting in Asia’s backyard, Singapore this time, splintered as covid-19 spread and shut down nations. It was a devastating blow, but one about which Sanz de Acedo is practical and almost matter of fact.
“Well, it hasn’t been easy, and at the same time, it has been very easy because it was a matter of common sense, you know, it’s health and safety first and foremost,” he says. “And because of that, it was very clear when the pandemic started that we, unfortunately, could not celebrate our Annual Meeting in Singapore, which we would have loved to for many reasons.
“That’s why we initially decided to bring back the meeting to North America, because at the time the pandemic had not extended the way that finally did ensue. We realized that May or June would not be an option, so then we started looking into the second part of the year, and we even looked into putting together a combined Annual Meeting and Leadership Meeting, and this is where we chose Houston.
“And then finally, at the same time we took that decision, we started looking very seriously into a virtual option, which is finally what we did. It’s very complicated from an operational perspective, but from, let’s say, a managerial perspective, a strategic perspective, it was a very easy decision because the priority has always been the health and safety of our members.”
The challenge for Sanz de Acedo: Capitalize somehow on a perceived weakness. Turn around an event renowned and valued precisely for its personal and face-to-face interactions, accept that all bets are off, and create – lemonade. And then, convince his members to drink.
“It’s the first time ever,” he says. “I would say it’s a change for INTA and for everyone. First, it’s going to be 10 days instead of five and it’s going to be all virtual. The platform is extremely flexible. It’s going to be a seamless experience for members. And the idea of flexibility is that we do not expect members to spend 10, 12 hours in front of their computer, because we know there is a lot of fatigue around it. We would rather see them using the platform for five, if they want six hours a day – it’s really at their leisure.”
Underpinning Sanz de Acedo’s strategy is the surprising fact that 90% of INTA’s attendees go to the meeting primarily for business development, meetings and for networking opportunities, and struggle to find time to attend the educational sessions. “This time, all our educational content is going to be available online,” he enthuses. “It’s going to be both live and on demand, and even if you’re not able to attend live, you’re going to be able to digest that content on demand whenever you like. And that’s going to be available for at least up until the end of the year. So that’s a great advantage.
The networking strategy for this ambitious exercise is unique and innovative. “One of the big developments we’re doing is really integrating as many solutions as possible,” he says. “We’re integrating different apps within the platform. That’s why we talk about a platform, so that we make sure that we have a very strong networking offering. I’m seeing a lot of organizations putting together their annual meeting or their world conference, which is going to be great from an educational perspective, but I very much doubt they’re going to be able to offer the networking opportunities INTA is putting together.”
So, the big question is how can Sanz de Acedo successfully replicate, or at least emulate, physical social networking on a digital platform. “We’re extremely confident that we’ll be able to offer very strong networking opportunities,” he says. “Let me be a little more specific.
“We’re going to have the Table Topics. We’re going to have the Speed Networking. We’re going to have one-to-one meetings. We’re going to have a Hospitality area, and we’re going to have the Corporate Meet-Ups. This is in addition to social networking and the networking that will be put together by our members themselves.
“Let’s talk a little about Table Topics. We already have 171 Table Topics with 2,052 seats available. The big part of them will look like the Table Topics we’ve done in the past – the host will speak for about 30 or 40 minutes, followed by a Q&A. About 45 Table Topics are being moderated by corporate members.
“That means that corporations will introduce a topic that is relevant to them, and then will open the floor for discussion. The expectation there is that participants to such Table Topics are experts in the subject. It’s going to be an opportunity for them to shine in front of the corporate members. And it’s going to be, for the corporate members, an opportunity to identify potential new external counsel.”
Sanz de Acedo believes it’s a win-win – an opportunity for external counsel to introduce themselves, and an opportunity for corporations to identify new talent. And there are plenty of companies that have already agreed to participate, among them Novartis, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gitai, Blue Cross, Eli Lilly, Facebook and Netflix.
“We also have Speed Networking, something we’ve already been offering virtually over the past [several] months,” he says. “It has been very successful. This is a one-hour session in groups of 12; people introduce themselves for three minutes and have a conversation. And then we pass all the contacts to the group. There’s going to be at least 150 sessions of Speed Networking, and that means 1,800 seats at least.”
Corporate Meet-Ups are also planned for the corporate members to be able to meet together. Plus, there will be a Hospitality area. “When you go to the in-person Annual Meeting, remember those roundtables connected to the exhibition, where people sit and start mingling together? Well, that’s exactly the same concept. You just walk in and you sit at a table. There’s going to be tables for first-time attendees, for new members, for young practitioners, for trademark administrators. This is going to be organized by industry sectors and by language.”
Another arrow in INTA’s virtual quiver is called INTAconnect, an AI-empowered matchmaking app. “When you first log onto the platform, you’ll be encouraged to first go to your profile,” says Sanz de Acedo. “You’ll complete that and introduce your preferences. Based on your profile, the AI-empowered app will match you with people with similar preferences. And then you’re going to be proposed with these potential contacts, people you might want to meet, and you’re going to be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to those suggestions.
“If you say ‘yes’, you’re going to be able to start interacting with them via email. And if you decide to go further, you’re going to be able to have a video conference. So that’s kind of replicating what happens at the lobby of a convention centre, or any hotel elevator where you see one person with a badge. The only thing you know about that person is the name and where that person comes from, and you start the conversation.
“The difference here is that you’ll know much more about that person and that person will know much more about you because you’ve already identified preferences. So you already have a kind of topic for discussion. Now, the advantage of that tool as well is that it will allow you to search the list of registrants in a fine-tuned search, and you’ll be able to take meetings one-to-one. And the more you use the app, the better the AI understands your preferences, and the better the matches become. In addition to this networking tool, there’s the Business Hubs where law firms can purchase those areas and hold meetings with up to 50 people.” INTA also plans to facilitate meetings between corporations and their external counsel on the platform.
“And last but not least, we’re going to have social networking. So we’re going to have sessions on wellness. We’re going to have ones on sports. We’re going to have experiences. All in all, I think there’s going to be plenty of networking opportunities.
“My final comment on this is that a significant number of corporations are participating in this Annual Meeting. There is a very clear expectation from the corporations that external counsel will be attending as well. And I think the ones that are going to be participating have a great chance to develop partnerships that will last over time.”
Then there are the sponsors and exhibitors, the lifeblood of any corporate event, staffing their booths, usually with a souvenir or two, and armed with advice about their particular service and how they can be utilized. Most INTA members save some time for a stroll around the booths and a chat with booth reps, but nervous sponsors may be wondering, can this work without personal interaction?
Sanz de Acedo explains: “We’re going to have a virtual exhibition hall that really looks very nice, and it’s going to be structured by pavilions, depending on the level. When you get into any of those pavilions, you’ll see the different booths, you’ll be able to click on those and you’ll get into a virtual booth, and there you’ll be able to find the information the exhibitor wants to promote.
“What we’re planning as well is in between sessions, we automatically take people into the exhibition hall. So that’s generating traffic into the exhibition hall. The other thing I’ve been saying myself to both exhibitors and sponsors is that this is really a kind of unique opportunity for one reason: In any in-person Annual Meeting we know that there is a lot of business that happens within hotels, within hospitality suites, to the point that perhaps out of 12,000 registrants only 30-35% go to the convention centre. The difference this year is that 100% of the attendees will go through the same lobby, through the same corridors, will be in the same rooms. So to me, this is a great opportunity for sponsors and exhibitors.”
As the Annual Meeting and Leadership Meeting draw closer, the structure and highlights are being released. The first week of the conference, from 9-13 November, will feature meetings between corporations and external counsel, INTA committee meetings, and the Leadership Meeting. The Annual Meeting in the week from 16-20 November will have several “capsule” keynote speakers each day, instead of just one.
“We are going to have at least two capsule keynotes, one being more IP-related and one being not IP-related,” says Sanz de Acedo. “What I can tell you is that we’ve already confirmed the new director general of WIPO [World Intellectual Property Office] Daren Tang; the former VP of innovation and creativity at the Walt Disney Company, Duncan Wardle; the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office [USPTO] Andrei Iancu; the executive director of the EU Intellectual Property Office Christian Archambeau; Renee Lee, the chief executive/registrar of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore; and other officials from all around the world.”
INTA’s appeal in Asia is growing and Sanz de Acedo recognizes the need to feed and cultivate the Association’s membership in the region. Not the least of these markets is China, which this year is taking a poll position in proceedings with a special day dedicated to it in a bid to lure more members from the nation.
“There’s going to be one day that is dedicated to China and that’s going to be a China track that will be in Mandarin,” says Sanz de Acedo. “We’ve developed it precisely because we wanted to have clarity for our Chinese members and we felt that for some of them, following all the content in English is not always easy, so we’re trying to attract new membership from China, and this is why we put together this track. It will be exclusively in Mandarin, with some English translation.”
The day will be focused on all the topics that are relevant for INTA’s Chinese members. “We’ll talk about artificial intelligence, about big data, about parallel imports. We know that it has been one year since the implementation of the new Trademark Law [fourth amendment], so it’s probably time to review that. And we’ll be talking as well about bad faith, because that’s one of the concerns that foreign industry has in China. And it’s important for Chinese members to discuss where they stand on that issue at the moment.
“The first part of this year has been extremely active in terms of the news from China,” says Sanz de Acedo. “INTA has been able to submit comments to up to 11 different consultations, and I think that’s a very good signal, first on the side of Chinese authorities to be willing to incorporate the views from the private sector and the international, but also domestic, private sector. It also shows that INTA is very active in China, both for its international membership and for its domestic membership.”
He expects “very significant” participation from Chinese officials at the Annual Meeting programme. “We’ll continue that dialogue, and we’re very thankful and very pleased with the way China is opening its IP system and being very forward thinking about it.”
Sanz de Acedo says one of the biggest challenges for the region are brand restrictions. “We started with plain packaging and tobacco, starting from Australia and going to New Zealand, then developing into other countries within the region and beyond. It’s a big topic,” he says.
“The other one, of course, is online and cross-border anti-counterfeiting. And last but not least, I would talk about our harmonization as a world, and here it’s about continuing to promote the Madrid and Hague systems. It’s also looking at the ASEAN IPR action plan (2016-2025). And last but not least, a priority for the association is to continue supporting and building a network of enforcement officials.
“ASEAN is a booming market. It’s a booming economy, and it’s home to a growing middle-class consumer market. And that means that we need to protect those consumers, especially from counterfeits.
“And [with] covid-19, I think no one can ignore the fact that there is a lot of counterfeiting happening in the pharma industry, in the health and safety industry at large, and that has a direct impact on the health and safety of consumers.
“So that’s something that we need to look into. We need to have stronger laws. We need to have harmonized laws, and we need to have networks of enforcement officials that communicate with each other, co-ordinate their efforts, because on the other side, it’s organized crime, it’s international organized crime and networks. And we need to put an end to these kinds of networks.
“The IPR action plan for ASEAN is already a success. It shows the commitment from the different states and the different governments to work together in the same direction. We need to see more co-operation when it comes to anti-counterfeiting, and in terms of brand restrictions, not talking about tobacco specifically.”
With the innovative and unique nature of this year’s INTA Annual Meeting and Leadership Meeting, Sanz de Acedo has succeeded in producing an offering for our extraordinary times, which provides a similar comprehensive programme with some very new tech and ideas to enrich the experience. Its success is yet to be measured, but in a year of isolation, INTA members would find it difficult not to applaud his efforts.
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