"Davos man lost", The Times declared in a dispatch from Davos last week, suggesting that the normally unshakeable confidence of the ruling elite has been decimated by the seismic events of the last year. When historians reflect on this period, they may well look back on the 2017 World Economic Forum as another turning point, due to the continuing geopolitical shifts that have been signalled here.
The gathering in the Swiss Alps is aimed at improving the state of the world and this year I saw business leaders, in particular, earnestly working towards positive developments in areas such as sustainability and inclusivity. In contrast, the Edelman Trust Barometer has shown that politicians are rapidly losing the confidence of their constituents, many of whom believe that the current system is failing them.
Here are six themes that dominated discussions in Davos and that are shaping the future of the business world and the world at large.
There remains a significant gap between the haves and have-nots. On the first day of the event, Oxfam reported that the world’s eight richest individuals together have as much wealth as the bottom half of the global population. Additionally, while one in nine people globally suffer from chronic undernourishment, almost one in eight are now classified as obese.
It will come as no surprise to hear that a key topic of debate has been the changed political landscape. A year ago the assembled luminaries were predicting a Clinton presidency and that the British would vote to Remain in Europe. As we know, neither outcome transpired, showing that many of those in power are increasingly out of touch with the views of the majority, an accusation that could also be levelled at the advertising community.
China on the world stage
Many at Davos are concerned about the rise of populism and the associated trend towards protectionism and isolationism. Against this backdrop, President Xi Jinping made a remarkable speech on the second day of the meeting, expounding the benefits of globalisation and free trade, while also reiterating his commitment to tackling climate change. His positioning suggests that China is preparing to take on America’s traditional leading role on progressive issues, in the process moving the political and business centre of gravity eastwards.
Alibaba accelerating disruption
On a similar theme, Jack Ma delivered a hugely impressive talk outlining his vision and strategy for Alibaba. In contrast to Amazon’s investment in capital assets such as warehousing and distribution depots, the Chinese company has focussed on platforms aimed at the long-tail of small- and medium-sized companies across the globe. He believes this strategy could help to create one million new jobs in the US alone and will reduce barriers to entry across many industries, accelerating the disruption of many established companies.
The ongoing issue of declining trust was aired in many forums at Davos. Google and Facebook have both been critiqued for their role in the growth of fake news and many have lamented the lack of robust industry reporting standards. The chief executive of Walmart, Doug McMillon, noted that in the face of increased global competition, their business relies increasingly on retaining the bond of trust they have built with their customers, advice that all marketers should heed.
Driving growth in uncertain times
It has become increasingly clear that the problems business and political leaders now face have been largely caused by the extended period of economic stagnation that began in 2008. If this low-growth trend remains, we will continue to see the unpredictability and unrest that has characterised the last twelve months.
Away from Davos, on Monday the World Federation of Advertisers released research that shows every euro spent on advertising delivers a sevenfold return to GDP. As marketers, we must continue to unleash the power of brands, now more than ever, and stimulate a period of strong and sustained global economic growth.
While the traditional self-assurance has certainly taken a hit, replaced by an acknowledged lack of clarity about the future, what does remain is an overwhelming sense of optimism from all corners represented about the potential to work together towards positive change. It is imperative that our industry take heed of these movements as we similarly engage in driving positive outcomes for brands and consumers.
Steve King is chief executive of Publicis Media