Davos: A gathering of silverbacks in the snow

Our man on the ground at Davos, Seven Hills co-founder Nick Giles, on Sir Martin's Sorrell's grumbles, tweeting from the mountain and the banana skins lying in wait for Davos' political and corporate silverbacks.

by Nick Giles
Last Updated: 28 Jan 2013

'Davos is full of big silverback gorillas throwing very important bananas around.' That was how the wonderful Nancy Koehn, a Harvard Business School professor, described Davos just before an interview with the BBC on Friday. Having spent several days there last week, I didn’t hear a better description.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos provides a rare opportunity to observe hundred’s of the world’s elite up close.  Perched high in an Alpine ski resort, two and a half hours by train from Zurich, each January the town temporarily becomes home to 2,600 delegates including heads of state, movie stars, tycoons and the CEOs of many of the world’s biggest companies, all bedecked in snow boots, crampons and parkas.  

This year’s roll call included Bill Gates, Lakshmi Mittal, Jamie Dimon, Marissa Meyer, Christine Lagarde, Lloyd Blankfein and Henry Kissinger. Silicon Valley superstars rubbed shoulders with Chinese academics, Indian technology magnate’s and Russian oligarchs. The high command of British business, media and politics were also out in force with the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Mayor of London all in attendance.

Despite the complaints from those that don’t like the idea of these power-brokers gathering to meet – and there are many - this annual shindig for the rich, powerful and influential is remarkable.  As the Daily Telegraph’s Alex cartoon put it on Friday, rather than feel shamefaced, many of the attendees feel positively virtuous for cramming a year’s worth of meetings into a frenetic 72 hours.  

And why not?  Deals are done, ideas are shared and the world’s leading media outlets broadcast round-the-clock to spread the word.  

But the complaints didn’t just come from those that were excluded.

Sir Martin Sorrell, a Davos veteran, grumbled that there are too many starlets and that it’s no longer like the good old days – his quiet chats with Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller are apparently a thing of the past.  While the old guard might not like it, the WEF is changing in more ways than one.

What used to be a closed shop with snipers is now more open than this high security event has ever been.  Every utterance is tweeted, every session recorded, every off-the-cuff remark and every casual meal subject to scrutiny – just witness the fuss around Pizza-gate last week.

For an event where every door has a checklist or an airport scanner, this is the new reality for those that attend - the main forum even had a 20 metre wide leader-board of the most prolific and influential tweeters at the WEF.

If Davos was once a secretive enclave for the rich and the powerful, that is no longer the case and the high-rollers that attend are becoming increasingly aware that what they say and do reaches a global audience regardless of whether they grant an interview to one of the hundreds of journalists in attendance. Just take Nicolas Sarkozy who was mocked via Twitter for banning the press from a dinner he was attending.

As my client David Jones, CEO of Havas, puts it, social media has empowered people to hold business and leaders accountable and even remove those that behave in the wrong way. From BP to News International, from the BBC to Barclays – the roll call of CEO scalps is plain to see.  

A new wave of digitally savvy CEOs are alert both to the risks and opportunities presented by social media and Davos provides them with an unrivalled platform to champion a more open, responsible and ethical approach to business.  

I attended a breakfast session hosted by Antony Jenkins, Barclays’ new CEO, where the discussion focused on how business leaders should address the corrosive issue of youth unemployment. Bill Gates was the star turn at a session on the transformative power of free online education to aid the world’s poor.  They were not alone in wanting to find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems and showing that the successful businesses of tomorrow will have a clearer purpose beyond profit.  

Indeed, this year’s WEF was a far more optimistic affair than in 2012 when the world was deep in the grip of the euro crisis and Davos itself was the target of the Occupy campaign.  I visited the Occupy WEF camp last January and the protestors were intent on exposing the greed and hypocrisy of what they saw happening up the hill.

While the Occupy protestors have long since moved on, it’s tempting to think that perhaps their message got through.  If 2012 showed anything, it’s that the misdeeds of CEOs will be found out, wrongdoing will be punished and that glittering careers can be trashed in a heartbeat.  The winners of tomorrow will be those that recognize this and act.

For the silverbacks that attend the World Economic Forum each year, they should continue to take note: in this new environment there are plenty of banana skins still out there to slip on, not just the Davos ice.

Nick Giles is co-founder of the public relations firm Seven Hills 

Image: Silverback at BigStockPhoto

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