Have you ever wondered what it is really like to be in charge of intellectual property at a huge IP based business like Dyson?

In the latest podcast from our series, 'In Conversation with Gowling WLG', partner Gordon Harris chats with Simon Forrester, Group IP Director at Dyson, and the man responsible for protecting the global technology giant's ever-expanding product line.

In our second episode, we find out first-hand what life is really like for Dyson's In-house Counsel, operating at the cutting edge of technology innovation. We explore:

  • Simon's road to Dyson and into the world of intellectual property - from private practice lawyer to IP front-of-house for a world renowned brand;
  • roles and responsibilities as Dyson's head of IP, and the pressures and privileges of leading a global team;
  • the ten-year evolution of Dyson from British vacuum manufacturer to worldwide tech powerhouse;
  • controlling the Dyson brand and protecting its IP assets, trademarks and designs in the international marketplace;
  • driving personal and professional development at all levels and bringing through the next generation; and
  • much more.


Gordon Harris : Good day to everyone tuning in to this, my name is Gordon Harris from the Gowling WLG Global IP Leadership Team and I would like to welcome you to the first in what will be a series of informal conversations with leading figures in the world of intellectual property. We are hoping that by talking to people who are involved in the world of IP in a variety of different capacities we can build a picture of how the IP world works and get some insight into trends and likely developments. Today I am talking with Simon Forrester, the group IP director which translated to head of IP at Dyson.

Simon, thank you very much for joining us today.

Simon Forrester: It is nice to be here Gordon.

Gordon: I wonder if I might start by having a little look at your rise to this important position. Where did you start out in the IP world and how did you get here?

Simon: Well, where did I start? Well I am a patent attorney by profession and actually I did not start in-house at all so like many people in my profession I started in private practice and I spent ten years in private practice. Mostly in London and then in Bristol and I enjoyed the work. Then one day I received a call from an ex-colleague who I used to work with in London. He had left the profession actually and had gone travelling and had ended up back in the profession at Dyson and he gave me a call one day out of the blue and he said that they were looking for an attorney at Dyson and I had come to mind as somebody who might be a pretty good fit and did I want to go in to talk to them so I said yes, I went in, I spoke to the then head of IP and we got on pretty well and the rest, as they say, is history. Along the way I had quite a few different roles, I had good exposure to lots of different categories, I was lucky enough to get involved in a bit of litigation along the way and so when the head of IP retired I was in a reasonably good position to just step into the role.

Gordon: Indeed, and of course it is quite a role isn't it. Dyson is a business which has very much emphasised the importance of IP and I remember some of its early television commercials even used to boast about how many patents protected a single device even if Victoria Wood pronounced the word "patents" wrong. The company has also been involved in a number of high profile litigation cases with patents, designs and brands so how does that affect your approach to the role and the responsibility it entails, IP being so central to Dyson's very being if you like.

Simon: Yes I think the short answer to that Gordon is that I am very much in the spotlight. You know it is interesting if you were to ask me the question generally about Dyson over the last ten years or so I would say as a company the only constant thing about it has been change. I mean it is a bit of a cliché but it is really true of Dyson. You know when I joined the company Dyson was very much a UK vacuum cleaner company when if I look at the situation now we are very much a global technology company and that has happened in the space of ten years, but what is interesting during that ten years is that one of the very constant threads has been IP. You know it was incredibly important when I first arrived in the company, it was a very much smaller organisation then, still a very successful organisation at that point but I remember on the first day that I joined I was taken along to meet James Dyson and it became really evident you know right at the outset that IP was really very much at the heart of this enterprise and it remains so now. I don't know that it really changes my approach to the role but as I said it certainly sharpens your senses to the fact that the things that you are doing and the decisions you are making really are critically important and that people within the business right up to James at the top are really going to be interested in those decisions that you are making.

Gordon: No well that has certainly been my experience and I well remember certainly my first interview with James when I was taken along to meet him it is pretty terrifying isn't it and obviously I knew your predecessor, who you have mentioned, very well, and she held that role pretty much from the start of the business and developed a very high profile in the IP world, this was Gill Smith. How have you approached the business of filling some really quite big shoes?

Simon: Yes that is a really good question Gordon, a really good question and I agree they are really quite big shoes. I think if I am honest I think the honest answer to that is that I have not really tried to fill those shoes and that has been quite deliberate and it is not because I think it is impossible to fill those shoes. It is probably nearly impossible to fill those shoes if we are honest but it is more about the fact that if you view it as filling somebody else's shoes I think the danger is that you are a bit constrained with your thinking and it inhibits your ability perhaps to think in very different ways. I always think one of the interesting sort of ways to view the sort of filling somebody's shoes metaphor is to view the shoes themselves as kind of a way of doing things. I think when you look at the shoes in that way it immediately begs the question whether you really want to fill those shoes or whether you want an entirely different pair of shoes frankly. I think that is kind of the decision I took, if I am honest I have been helped along the way a little bit because at Dyson at the moment I talked about how it is a place that is constantly on the move and constantly changing and that is equally true of Dyson legal and we are going through a bit of a transformation at the moment and as part of that transformation we have restructured in a way that has kind of expanded my role beyond IP and so I sit on top of a vertical now that covers not just IP but all other aspects of the sort of product life cycle including things like advertising, so that has been helpful in a way because I don't think there really is a genuine comparison to Gill anymore simply because I don't think we are quite doing the same role, which helped me because as you were saying, they are pretty big shoes to fill.

Gordon: Just touching on one of the points you made there that you have now got advertising under your control. I have encountered in the past with different clients a bit of a divergence some times between advertising and IP particularly on the brand side where the IP team are saying please apply the brand guidelines please be rigid and the advertisers are saying well hold on we have got to be creative and constructive, have you encountered that dichotomy at all yet?

Simon: Yes we absolutely encounter that. I do not think we encounter any tension within my team, I think what we have is that sort of classic tension between, and it is a perfectly understandably tension, it is the classic tension between the marketeers and the lawyers and it exists in Dyson like it exists everywhere else and to be honest my view is that that is a pretty health tension I think that if you approach it in the right way and you have a sort of band between you that is under tension and you are not simply sort of stood apart with no band between you at all as long as you have that band between you under tension and you can each pull each other in the opposite direction then I think inevitably you tend to end up in the right place.

Gordon: That's great. That is a very interesting approach. Now as you said Dyson is a truly global business now both in terms of its markets but also its supply chain and even corporate governance, I mean HQ is in Singapore so how does the global nature of the role affect your approach, I mean obviously you are not travelling much at the moment I imagine.

Simon: No I'm not but actually it is interesting that you mentioned that Gordon because I do think actually that that is one of the key requirements as I see it of anybody frankly who is in a global role. I mean we have technology these days and that technology has come on leaps and bounds in the past few months for obvious reasons until we are able to take calls and video calls and so on and so forth and that is all very well but I, perhaps I am old school in this sense, but I think there is no substitution actually for getting out there if you have a global role and meeting your colleagues in the various markets and that is something that I did a bit of last year and that I had planned to do very much more of this year, that has not happened but as we eventually come out of this crisis that really is very much part of the global role for me and I anticipate that I will be getting out and about to markets to meet with our stakeholders and understand really at the coal face what is actually going on and therefore how we can best support them. I think beyond that sort of basic communication point I mean the other thing I would say is that you know I obviously, it is a pretty trite statement, but I have obviously got to sort of view everything with a global lens. You know a really good example of that might be the sort of services that we provide to R and D and typically we used to do all of our R and D in the UK, we have not for some time done all of our R and D in the UK and now we do quite a significant amount in Singapore, we do a significant amount in Malaysia and so I think that throws up questions around how you best service that demand, you know and it is incumbent on me to think about all of the available options and whether I need to deploy teams locally or whether I can manage it centrally and the right balance is what I am trying to find and that is part of my role as I see it.

Gordon: I can tell you from my own experience of having multiple international offices it is a challenge and you do need to be there from time to time. I mean obviously you just can't at the moment but when you can again it is one of those things you have to appear in front of people before they really believe in you. So touching then on that as we just have done and obviously right now you have come into this job at an interesting time because you have the added challenge of the COVID epidemic, what are the special challenges of running a very large global team in this environment?

Simon: Yes that is a really good question, I guess it is a question we are all grappling with at the moment. I think really there were probably three aspects to my approach when it comes to the COVID thing. I think the first thing that I thought was important and actually the feedback that I have had from the team sort of confirms this was that I think one of the issues with COVID is just the general lack of clarity and uncertainty for everybody, you know it is a pretty uncertain situation, it is a fast moving situation and right as we were going into lockdown and the period before lockdown, I mean it was so dynamic that it was kind of changing every day. I took a decision, sort of, quite early on actually that I would try to just give the team a bit of clarity because I think the direction of travel at that point was pretty clear, it was pretty clear to me that things were not going to be normal for quite some time and so I was able to just cut through everything really by getting the team together and saying just that, this is not going to be normal for quite some time so I suggest we now really think very hard about setting ourselves up to work in a very different way and this was sort of pre-lockdown. So at this point it had not necessarily been mandated but I just think you know it was interesting the reaction was almost a sort of sign of relief you know that people thought great a bit of clarity. Let's not worry about whether we are going into lockdown or not let's just set ourselves up to work from home and that is what we did and we made sure that people had the right equipment so that by the time we went into lockdown we were pretty well set up. I think the next challenge then, I mean that is the sort of practical side of it, I think the next challenge then for me was to sort of determine how we were going to work. I mean it was so far from normal that what became clear to me was that any sense of planning for the future beyond the next few weeks was kind of absurd, you would be in a perpetual state of readjusting your plans. So what I decided to do effectively was to just bring the planning horizon right in to a sort of four week cycle and that is what we did. I sort of got the guys together and I said look don't worry about the next six months frankly, worry about the next four weeks, tell me what you are going to do in the next four weeks, tell me how we are going to do it. If we think there are issues with that we can address it, you know and I can help you with the practicalities and then at the end of that four weeks you know what let's take an assessment of where the world is and then let's plan the next four weeks and that sort of four week cadence I think and again it is about certainty isn't it and not looking too far ahead but I think that has really worked and I would say that is one of the successes for us within my team.

Gordon: That makes enormous sense to me and that sounds like a real role model way of dealing with this issue. I mean there are so many uncertainties and remain so many uncertainties it is very difficult sometimes I get asked to think about what is going to happen in January say and you just can't say can you it is impossible. So you obviously as you said right at the beginning you started out in private practice and worked for some time in that area. I think that those of us who have always remained in private practice struggle occasionally to picture how the business of running an in-house team would work. What would you identify as the most different challenges that you think you face as head of an in-house team as opposed to somebody in private practice who heads a team. What do you think are the differences?

Simon: I think, and this is a question that I get asked fairly often actually and it is not necessarily an easy question to answer in a sort of you know in just a few lines. I think very high level, what I say to people is that the principal difference I think between an in-house department and a private practice even if those teams are the same in terms of size is that for the in-house department you will almost inevitably be a smaller part of a much larger machine. Now I know that there are private practices that are very large, I know there law firms that are very large but if not larger in terms of scale then certainly larger in its sense of sort of diversity. So within the enterprise you are going to have large teams operating in the markets, operating in security, operating in IT, operating in R and D, all of these very different teams that have very different aims, interests and drivers compared to the legal team and I think that for me is the principal difference. I mean it is interesting the answer to this question might have been different sort of five years ago than it is now because I think the other thing about working in-house is that it is really in a state of flux at the moment I would say to a degree. I mean I read an article, I think it was in the economist a few weeks ago, I was really struck by some of the statistics in that article and one in particular which said that 61% of the value of the S&P 500 index was actually tied up with intangibles. Now what is really interesting about that is that it not even tech companies, you know that is not just tech companies in that index, and what that says to me is that it is actually a very different place now for CEOs and by extension the whole of the c-suite including chief legal officers or general counsels than it was, say, 25 years ago, perhaps even ten years ago, you know it is no longer for these guys just about making decisions around capital investment, it is about data, it is about brand identity, it is about disruptive innovation and obviously that brings opportunities for us. I mean it is a great time, I think, to be working in the IP sector, you know I think this is really fantastic, a fantastic time but it also brings risks like everything, you know with opportunities come risks and I think one of the really interesting risks around this sort of pivot towards intangibles within the context of a big organisation and a big enterprise is that you start to see overlap. You start to see overlap between what would typically have been the remit of an IP team and you start to see overlap with other teams, you know when things like data governance become important and things like site purity become important you know and those guys do a job which is close to the job that we do in the IP team, it doesn't really overlap but what tends to happen is that because the c-suite are not necessarily you know as clued up about what IP is all about you get the word IP thrown around and you get it thrown around in the context of data governance, you get it thrown around in the context of cyber security and so I think one of the really important things in an in-house IP team at the moment is to really be clear about your value proposition and really differentiate it and work hard to differentiate it from some of these other value propositions which on the face of it seem very similar to the c-suite but actually as we know are quite different. Trade secrets is not just the same as data governance. It is not just a subset of data governance and so I think there is that sense that you have to differentiate yourself and properly identify your value proposition and once you identify your value proposition then you have got to execute and you have got to deliver on that and when you are talking about dealing with the c-suite you know you need to put in place some pretty solid metrics that are going to demonstrate to those guys that you are delivering on that and there is no use just saying that you are delivering on that, those metrics need to be simple and that is pretty difficult in the IP sphere as we know. It is very difficult sometimes to reduce IP to a very simple set of metrics but that is kind of what we need to do and then I think there is almost, sorry go on Gordon.

Gordon: No, no, no you continue I don't want to interrupt.

Simon: Well, I was just going to say, I mean I talk about differentiation and differentiating your staff from other parts of the organisation and then there is a slight conundrum I think, there is a flip side to that which is that the other challenge that you have working in-house is that of trying to complete with other very large projects when you are trying to get access to resource. So a really good example of that is sort of IT resource, you know and the IT guys are working on some pretty big infrastructure projects and if you are going to be able to get any of that resource you are going to have to demonstrate that you have got critical mass and so at the same time that you are trying to differentiate yourself from some of these other guys you then have to sort of club together where it is appropriate and build up critical mass, you know perhaps with the guys like data governance to try and coalesce around something that you can pitch to other parts of the organisation in order to get support and so you are constantly trying to find the right balance I think, the right mix between differentiating what you do and working with others in a way that enables you to do what you want to do.

Gordon: I think you mention IT and you mention cyber security and these are two areas which have caused a lot of overlap haven't they with so IP can no longer sit on a little island all of its own and I think the prominence of trade secrets, as an important aspect of IP, has sort of developed that even further because obviously it goes hand in hand sometimes with cyber security and what have you. Now Dyson has always been a patenting company but do you nonetheless have a sharp eye on trade secrets and the importance of making sure they are protected?

Simon: Yes that is a good question Gordon, it is something I have thought about myself. I don't think historically that it has been at the forefront of our minds if I am honest and I think your characterisation of us as a patenting company is an accurate one. I think it is very much more in our minds now as we move forward. It certainly is in my mind and I think yet again, you need to find the right balance you know. I think there is space for everything in the tool kit you know there is space for patents, there is space for designs, obviously you have got to try to protect the brand but I think there is space for other things such as trade secrets and so I think going forward it is going to be increasingly important that we have a sort of mature structure in place that allows us to keep those trade secrets secret frankly and that is difficult, you know it is difficult because these is a lack of maturity within the organisation generally, a lack of understanding as to what trade secrets are even about so it is a pretty big undertaking to get to a point where you have a level of maturity but I think it is critically important.

Gordon: Just going back to the management of the team then, I mean obviously structurally it is inevitably something of a pyramid so how do you go about kind of creating a career path for young and ambitious lawyers and patent attorneys within an in-house team?

Simon: Yes that is a really good question, I mean we could probably spend half an hour talking about people development, Gordon. I mean it is something that occupies a lot of my waking time because it is really important. I think if I was just going to sort of be brief I think my impression is that people fall into two buckets, they are either concerned about developing themselves and the main goal for those people is just experiencing new things and trying different things, and getting exposure to different opportunities and in a sense their career path then becomes quite non-linear and opportunities open up for them. Then they take those opportunities and that is probably a bucket that I am in but there is another bucket and people are very clear that they are in this bucket which is more of a sort of linear approach to careers where you know the focus for those guys really is the role immediately above them you know and so the question is how do I get to that role and they accept that they have to do some development but in a sense it is a means to an end. I think the first bucket is much easier to deal with than the second bucket in an organisation like mine and probably in any organisation. We are doing quite a bit of stuff at the moment to work on people development and as a leadership team we are doing a lot of stuff around that, and I think we are doing some pretty good stuff for people who are interested in non-linear career progression. I think that in itself goes a long way to resolving their concerns. I think there is always going to be the challenge around people who want a very linear path and there is nothing wrong with that and for me that ultimately comes down to sort of honest conversations I think you know, I mean some of the conversations I have had have been about 'look I am going to support you whether your future is here or elsewhere but it is in my interest to develop you and I am going to say that this is a good place to work', and I am going to try to make it a good place to work, but if it is not a good place to work then let me support you to find your career elsewhere.

Gordon: Yes it all comes down to the single core thing doesn't it when you are running a team which is you need to know that team, you have got to know which bucket they are sitting in in order to be able to run with it.

Looking outside the organisation you have recently run a process to sort of rationalise your panel of external advisers, but you have still got quite a lot around the world, so how are you going to keep them all on their toes?

Simon: Yes it has been a really interesting process this actually I think it has been a really good process. Honestly I think we are still kind of finding our way a little bit with this, it is early days. For me I think there is a bit of a tension I think as somebody sat as a functional head rather than sat in the sort of legal ops role. I think there is a bit of an inevitable tension between the drive to keep costs down which is part of what you know running a panel is about, I mean let's be honest about that, I think there is a tension between that and maintaining the sorts of relationships that you need to maintain so that if something really big happens you know that you can pick up the phone to a guy who understands Dyson, understands the history, he or she knows how we work and therefore can get moving straight away and I do think there is a kind of tension between those things and I kind of view my role as trying to sort of manage that tension between those two things and I think my approach to it is to kind of think not in terms of cost but in terms of value so we not necessarily trying to drive down costs what I think we are trying to drive is value and I think when you think of it in those terms and it is no longer a race to the bottom then it becomes a little easier to maintain some of those relationships I think ultimately that is what we need to try to do.

Gordon: Yes I mean I think we certainly from our side of the fence would like to see more of that where an appreciation of value, you know as you said, and not the race to the bottom which will sometimes occur. Simon this has been really, really interesting, to conclude would you say that you have an underlying philosophy of management, a sort of set of principles which you can apply to most situations to get you through?

Simon: Wow, I don't know whether I have a sort of clear management philosophy, I mean there has been plenty of books written on that and I am certainly no scholar in that area. I mean what I think I would say is this, I have a couple of principles that I do tend to find that I can apply to most situations. The first, and kind of overlapping, the first principle is have a clear goal and the second principle, which I think is really key, is empower people to meet that goal. Now it sounds like a very simple statement but when we talk about goal in this context that actually covers pretty big things, you know designing a whole operating model for a legal department but it can also cover really small things what a lot of my guys will probably say to you, it has become almost a running joke, is that I am constantly asking the question "what are we trying to achieve". You know whether it is a big project or a really small bit of sort of admin process that we are trying to improve what are we trying to achieve I think is a really fundamental question. When it comes to empowerment I think there is a lot of stuff to sort of unpick there and sort of unpack, you know it is really about people, it's about making sure that you develop people and it comes back to this development point, you need to have good people and you need, if you do not have people who are good enough then that is really a development challenge for you and you have to sort of get those people to the right place where you can trust them to make decisions but then even when you have good people I think there is probably a process aspect to that empowerment as well and you have got to think a little bit about governance and you have got to have a relatively mature approach to governance if you are going to let people go around making decisions and empowering them to make decisions so I think under those sort of very simple principles there is a lot of detail but if you are asking me what do I constantly think about when I go into any situation, have a clear goal, empower people to meet it.

Gordon: I think that is really, really interesting and insightful advice and thank you very much. Thank you Simon for sharing your thoughts with us today. I have found that absolutely fascinating and truly insightful. I very much look forward to seeing how things evolve for you and Dyson in the years to come, but one thing I definitely know is that Dyson's very impressive IP portfolio is in really good hands. I will be back soon with another guest in conversation with Gowling WLG, so thank you to everyone who has joined us for this event today and thank you Simon.

Simon: Thanks.

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