Why Davos is bucking the populist trend to stay on agency leaders' calendars

Some are going to observe a clash of cultures. Others to get a jump on the trends that will define the year. Despite the rise of populism, agency CEOs are not crossing the World Economic Forum off their to-do lists.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

If you’re looking for the top executives of major PR agencies next week, chances are they’ll be in Davos. The Swiss town is an important-as-ever destination on the calendars of the global agency CEO, COO, and chairman.

Weber Shandwick’s Jack Leslie, Edelman’s Richard Edelman and Matt Harrington, Ketchum’s Barri Rafferty, and Ogilvy’s John Seifert are each planning to descend on the resort town in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum’s general meeting from next Tuesday to Friday.

This year’s annual meeting of minds will give them the chance to hear from and rub shoulders with leaders such as President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They’re also looking to see whether there is "a mending of geopolitical fences or a clash of titans," in Rafferty’s words.

Agency leaders also say they’re looking to gain insights on the big issues of the moment from not only heads of state, but also business leaders, academics, scientists, and philanthropists. Top of mind for comms executives: the fourth industrial revolution and the impact artificial intelligence and robots will have on the bubbling of populist movements around the world.

"I’ll be paying close attention to discussion around the fourth industrial revolution," says Leslie, Weber’s chairman. "The next decade will determine if technology is seen as a good or an evil. AI will create more dislocation but also enormous opportunity. Will we find ways to create more new jobs and begin to close the income gap? Or will the gap widen, further fueling populism and political dysfunction?"

Leslie is also set to participate on a panel this year. In addition to gathering insights to share with his agency and clients, he plans to meet with "colleagues in government and the private sector, many of them clients."

"It’s hard to find a place where more influencers gather at one time, and Davos is a terrific opportunity to spend time with clients," Leslie explains.

Edelman is sending a contingent of top executives to the annual summit: president and CEO Richard Edelman; COO Matt Harrington; and president and CEO of Europe and CIS Carol Potter.

Harrington contends that the rise of populist frustration and anger has made the World Economic Forum all the more important for PR leaders, noting it is an issue that affects many clients.

"Over the last several years, there has been a dramatic shift in the conversation at Davos, led in no small measure to the rise of populism in various countries," he explains. "The implications of technology, innovation, climate, immigration, and so many other issues aren’t confined by borders."

That’s also made finding a consensus for solutions more challenging, "as leaders from government, business, and NGOs do have to recognize implementation will often occur at a local, country-by-country level," Harrington notes.

Edelman’s global COO adds that he is looking forward to diving into issues such as "the implications of data, the rise of artificial intelligence and its impact on varieties of industries, such as automotive, and how blockchain, beyond bitcoin, is expanding its footprint."

This year’s Davos theme is "creating a shared future in a fractured world" and it includes 400 sessions on topics from climate change to AI; the forum, which will run from January 23 to 26, is expected to attract 3,000 participants. (For more tips on how to get the most out of the World Economic Forum, please check out our checklist on how to make the most of Davos).

This will be the fifth time Rafferty will travel to the World Economic Forum.

"Davos essentially kicks off 2018 with a wide-angle lens of what the year ahead will bring. It sets the stage for discussions on the biggest issues impacting the world at large," she explains. "Since it is such an exclusive forum, many of our clients really value the insights we bring back each year and share with them."

She expects that "environmental topics will continue to play a prominent role, particularly considering the record number of natural disasters the world has experienced in the last year."

This year will also make the first time that all seven co-chairs of the annual meeting are women. "I imagine we will see the World Economic Forum engaging female attendees who are still very much a minority in new and different ways," says Rafferty.

This year’s agenda includes a session called How Do We Stop Sexual Harassment? A panel will address the #MeToo movement and how it can have a long-term impact on changing gender dynamics in the workplace in 2018.

Seifert, worldwide chairman and CEO of Ogilvy, contends Davos is "a magical place" for learning, enlightenment, and collaboration.

"Everyone comes together, whether you are a prime minister, a small business owner or a student with a shared purpose to make the world a better place," he says. "I am also looking forward to the discussions that will evolve outside of the planned agenda. Often the most fascinating and compelling dialogues emerge in unexpected ways."

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