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Annette King: Making sense of my first World Economic Forum

By Annette King, Chief executive officer

January 27, 2020 | 7 min read

I just got home from my first trip to Davos.


Annette King: Davos at 50

For anyone who doesn’t know, Davos is a ski town in Switzerland, about two hours from Zurich and every year for the last 50 years politicians, business leaders, academics, the media, celebrities and people who generally want to do good in the world descend upon the town for five days in January for the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The theme for WEF 2020 was ‘Stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world’ and that was delivered in many different ways over the course of the week. There were formal presentations and panel discussions in the enormous conference centre, including all sorts of people, from Trump to Greta and Prince Charles to Mark Carney. Then there were the slightly less formal meetings and sessions, like Facebook (having taken over a shop and made it their own) talking about how it is going to do a better job of monitoring and managing content and Google (also having taken over a shop) introducing their top seven YouTubers, all well under 25 and all able to accidentally make you feel like you haven’t done enough with your life in comparison. Then there were the thousands of no less important but much less formal meetings in the strategic partner's lounge, the hundreds of restaurants and bars and, no doubt, on the slopes.

All this against a very unique backdrop of beautiful mountains, extreme wealth and status, an overt hierarchy and frighteningly high security. I guess the latter was necessary given that of the 3,000 people who attended, 53 of them were heads of state and 114 were billionaires. Snipers on the roof seemed a bit extreme as did the airport type security to get in and out of the congress centre area (and my hotel!) and the hundreds of police and security men all over the town. However, it was so pervasive that it started to feel ‘normal’ pretty quickly, though it got increasingly annoying to have to keep taking all your warm outer clothes off and chuck your water away every time you wanted to go anywhere.

The hierarchy was blatant. You need a badge to go anywhere and I lost count of how many tiers there were and which bits you could and couldn’t go into with which badge. I was lucky enough to have a white one, which I think was a goodie but I’m pretty certain that there are still parts of Davos that I will never know about and certainly never get access to.

Then there’s the wealth and status. It was everywhere. One example is that I walked the 2km home to my hotel every night (distance being part of being a newbie and that hierarchy thing, I assumed) and there were easily a couple of hundred blacked-out cars waiting (with their engines running) for their important passengers along the way. Don’t even get me started on the helicopters and private jets.

The town itself and the way it accommodated the event was impressive. It all felt incredibly well run (check out which company helps make that happen). Literally every shop and building had been taken over by a company, a brand or a country. Google did a lovely job with the law firm it took over for the week, SAP turned a cheese shop into a delightful space, CBNC turned the church into a media centre and I don’t know what Facebook’s space was the other 51 weeks of the year but it was a very cool place to hang out last week.

The last cue I’ll give you to help you get a sense of it all: the outfits. Business dress with snow boots. It’s not a great look, especially with suits. Some people carried changes of shoes in bags (not the blacked-out car lot, of course) but many of us couldn’t be bothered as you stop caring about what you look like quite as much once the temperature reaches -10.

The main point of Davos, though, is that people are there mostly because they care about important global issues (and only partly for the networking, schmoozing, and partying). This year the main topics of focus were:

Climate change and the Paris agreement, with a particular focus on the ‘energy transition’ that we all need to make from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, both literally and in terms of institutional investment. Greta reminded us that ‘our house is on fire’ and that we should be trying to get to zero emissions now. Others were taking a longer view and sharing their plans for 2050. Prince Charles was somewhere in the middle.

The global economy, with wide-ranging views from Trump who declared that the US economy is absolutely fine, thanks, and all because of him, to a long term (10 year) risk outlook from one report I heard that listed climate action failure, weapons of mass destruction, extreme weather, information infrastructure breakdown, natural disasters, human-made environmental disasters, water crises and infectious diseases as the things we should watch out for in successfully navigating our global economy. Not terrifying. At all.

Gender equality, with posters everywhere declaring that brand X or Y was making this a priority but sadly little actual evidence of it at the conference. Apparently 24% of the delegates were female (down from 27% last year), almost all of those blacked out cars were waiting for men and there were a lot of all-male panels. There was even ‘buy four get one free promotion’ if two of the four delegates were female. Bit crass but at least they tried.

The highlights for me were:

1) Seeing many of our clients make commitments that will make a real difference. 2) Hearing Greta Thunberg speak. What she has to say is clearly important but it was also the confidence, almost defiance, with which she did it that most impressed me.

3) The Google lunch where Sundar Pichai laid out the future in a more positive and optimistic way than I heard anywhere else.

4) The young and very successful YouTubers I met from all over the world – including a physicist, a comedian and a very young financial advisor.

5) The horse-drawn carriage that my friends at CNBC arranged for me to get home in after a wonderful dinner from chef, Alyn Williams, at their fantastic apartment. No 2km walk home through blacked-out cars that night.

My advice to everyone is that if the opportunity ever presents itself for you to go is to grab it. It’s an eye-opener on many different levels; it gives you a great sense of the challenges and opportunities facing the world at large and sends you home with a lot to think about – thrilling and terrifying at the same time -- and an inescapable desire to make more of a difference yourself.

Annette King is the chief executive officer of Publicis Groupe UK.

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