Close-Up: Hanging out with the Masters of the Universe at Davos

It's a kind of 'speed dating' for the powerful in the Swiss Alps, Publicis' John Rossant explains.

Oscar Wilde's famous quip that only people who can't get in society speak ill of it could certainly be applied to the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, aka Davos. If you've never been - or haven't been invited - it's hard to understand just how exhilarating, fascinating and interesting the event can be.

In a world where thought-leadership events are proliferating faster than you can say TED, Davos is the Daddy of them all: meticulously well-planned, well-covered and well-attended.

This year's Davos, which wound up on 30 January, was no exception. Davos is where you go - if you are one of the 2,500 lucky participants, that is - to take the temperature of the world.

The idea that Davos is a bunch of fattened plutocrats partying 'til dawn in the Swiss Alps is far from the truth - even if there are some great parties in the evening.

Chief executives such as Muhtar Kent of Coca-Cola, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, or Wang Jianzhou of China Mobile, the largest mobile operator in the world, don't travel thousands of miles because the canapes are good. The 1,400 chief executives present this year in Davos were looking for insights into whether the winds blowing through the world economy in 2011 will be chill or warm.

In the end, the weather report was by and large pretty good, even if many participants were nervously looking at breaking news from Egypt on their iPads and BlackBerrys. (Troubles in the Middle East meant that King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan cancelled at the last moment.)

Brazil, Russia, Germany and, of course, China and India are growing very healthily, while a US economic recovery is starting to kick in. "What's not to like?" an upbeat Jamie Dimon, the chairman of JP Morgan Chase, asked.

The ambient optimism was also fuelled by a strong global tech sector - well represented this year by the likes of Google's Eric Schmidt, Microsoft's Bill Gates, HP's Leo Apotheker and scores of WEF Technology Pioneers. The techies, indeed, were more upbeat than at any Davos in recent memory. "If you look at the continuing waves of innovation, there is a lot of reason to be optimistic," Schmidt said (although Time's editor-at-large, Fareed Zakaria, countered that innovation in Silicon Valley is more likely to create jobs in China than in the unemployment-hobbled US economy).

Davos is not only about technology and macroeconomics, though. It also gives chief executives quality time to reflect on how to solve some of the world's more intractable problems, and learn about developments far removed from their world in sessions ranging from cybersecurity to discussing the new frontiers of biology with J Craig Venter, whose institute last year created the first cell with a synthetic genome. Among this year's participants were 20 religious leaders, 14 trade unionists - and more than 200 of the world's top editors-in-chief and columnists.

That unique mix is why Davos is invaluable for the grandees of global communication. Maurice Levy, Sir Martin Sorrell, John Wren and Michael Roth are all Davos habitues, as are the heads of the world's largest agencies. Davos, among other things, means spending quality time with valued clients.

It's also hard work. Participants rise early in the morning, since invariably they will participate in, say, a breakfast with Indian chief execs. During the days, you get to choose from 600 or so sessions held within this well-guarded conference centre, as well as go from meeting to meeting. Davos has been described as "speed dating for the Masters of the Universe" and most seasoned Davos Men and Davos Women arrive at the Annual Meeting with dance cards almost completely full.

And, yes, there are also the parties in the evening. They range from the private dinner for a dozen or so luminaries given by the chairman of a leading global bank (at which former President Bill Clinton showed up for a chat over dessert) to the traditional Friday night wine party thrown by Accel Partners, the famed venture capital group best known for having backed a start-up called Facebook.

And once you get through the security perimeter around the conference centre, manned by Swiss ex-paratroopers, everyone is pretty much jumbled together - heads of state, royalty, bloggers and Nobel scientists. Once you get through security, that is. Davos means having to place your coat through an X-ray machine often ten times a day. As one 65-year-old American woman, the wife of the head of a hedge fund, was heard to remark after one security check: "I haven't been dressed and undressed this much since I was in my twenties."

John Rossant is the executive chairman of PublicisLive, which has been producing the World Economic Forum since 1995.

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