The Strange Tribal Rites Every Year at Davos

Eytan Avriel
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People share a lunch during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on January 24, 2015 in Davos. Credit: AFP
Eytan Avriel

A number of studies and books have adopted the term “Davos Man,” not unlike anthropologists use the term caveman, to identify a community of several thousand top executives of large global companies who, as a group, are in many ways more powerful than sovereign states. They have means, money and influence that are just as great, even greater, than senior politicians and government officials. They themselves are wealthy or very well-off at least. Since one of the things they almost all have in common is that they meet once a year at the World Economic Forum conference in the Swiss town of Davos, the term “Davos Man” has come to describe them.

The common denominator of all the Davos Men is well known. They are intelligent, hard-working, talented, have a strong desire to succeed and are fluent in organizational politics. They have excellent social skills, are eloquent, and are experts in combining business with the public sector and the academic world. Some of them are self-made, while others inherited their fortunes and status.

All of them are accustomed to a royal lifestyle. They all know each other – the Davos conference has been taking place ever year for close to half a century – and it is important to them that everybody know that they are Davos Men.

Even among bankers, there are two kinds of people: salaried executives and chairpeople, and people who possess, on their own or through their families, sole or siginificant ownership control of a financial institution. Most of the bankers are salaried employees, always wear suits and ties, and have no choice but to show up in Davos every January. Absence is not an option because it would raise a series of questions such as, “Why didn’t you come?” “What happened?” “Are there problems in the company?” Sending a vice president is not an option either. Everyone would begin whispering that the CEO was on his way out.

Their goal is to tighten the social network and form relationships that are as friendly as possible with their peers because – who knows? – one day they might have to make the leap from their current employer to another.

Securing your position

More to the point, their goal is to make sure that their position is secure, that nobody is undermining it and that they are not missing any of the big stories that are circulating in the industry. Along the way, of course, the bankers will meet many clients and pay them respect, although they could do that at the office as well.

The economists are dressed less smartly than the bankers. Why is that? Because they have tenure at one of the important universities, because they have the image of intellectual academics and because they are not dependent on the utterances of the powerful client, so they can afford to ease up a bit. Some of them are stars, others less so. Some of them held high positions in the public sector, such as governor of a major central bank or economic minister. Like the CEOs, they never refuse to provide commentary for television or important newspapers.

Their goal at the Davos conference is to impress many people with their wisdom and knowledge so that they will be invited to give lectures. Of course, these are fully paid lectures, with a fee that ranges between $50,000 for an economist who is not in the top decile (the ranking goes according to public exposure) and more than $100,000 for one invited to moderate or participate in the major panel discussions at the Davos conference.

Unlike bankers, economists may express ethical positions, and they may answer a question with “I don’t know.” But the truth is that nobody, not even an economist who has tenure, breaks the rules of the game at Davos or calls the social order of the Davos club into question. Anyone who does is not invited the following year.

Many renowned economists were absent from the conference this year. Why? A probe among the economists who attended revealed that the forum’s administration wanted to bring more women, so they invited several lesser-known women economists at the expense of better-known men. “They are wonderful economists, and some of them were my students,” one economist said, “but they deal with esoteric mathematical topics and have no experience with events like the Davos conference.”

About 50 heads of state attend the Davos conference every year, together with whole delegations of assistants. They are also Davos Men, even if only for their term in office. That is, unless one is Shimon Peres, in which case he is assured of lifetime membership. The political leader who attends the Davos conference is busy and under pressure. He often attends for only two days rather than for the entire week. He must organize cocktail parties and events for the bankers and the businessmen, and fawn upon them.

He must answer the questions and demands of the businessmen, who want less regulation for themselves and more regulations and restrictions for their competitors. In some cases, they are criticized in their countries of origin – for example, on the cost-effectiveness of the delegation’s trip to Switzerland.

Making an impression

The goal of the politician or public official is to execute the plan successfully – the speech, the discussion and the question-and-answer period with the audience, while making an impression in conversations with the businesspeople who are really important. Along the way, the politician and the high-ranking official will try, with the appropriate degree of refinement, to get close to the businesspeople who might want to employ them one day, after they have completed the service-to-the-country phase of their careers.

The businesspeople who possess hundreds of millions of dollars in safe and liquid assets, whether they earned the money themselves or inherited and doubled it, and who do not engage in ongoing management, form a particularly interesting sub-community.

Their purpose at Davos is to combine business with protecting the value of their assets. Their interest is in risk management, not in making more big money. They want to know what is happening, where the problems are and who can help if an unexpected crisis should arise. They are usually dressed in expensive suits; after all, their budget has no limits.

Since they have no interest in the professional part of the conference, they attend few meetings and panel discussions, preferring to sit in the corridors. Sometimes they will place themselves in a strategic location and wait for passing executives and tycoons to stop, shake hands, share a few secrets with them and try to persuade them to attend their “event.”

The senior editors, publishers or high-ranking commentators of large media outlets who attend the Davos conference act on two levels. On one, they are journalists with a crew to manage, programs to host or articles to write. On the other, they are industry leaders. As part of this dual definition, they will attend theoretical discussions on the future of the media and the advertising market, cover the conference as part of their jobs, and moderate discussions. Their goal is to beat their competitors for exclusives, impress everyone with their erudition and receive an invitation to moderate discussions (for a fee, of course) next year and at other conferences. For those of them who also write books, it is an opportunity to promote them.

Any manager who has paid the full fee to attend Davos may invite his or her spouse, since attending means being away from home for five days. The spouse receives access to the Congress Centre and may attend any lecture he or she wishes – and, more important, attend all the parties. Most spouses work during the day and join their husbands or wives in the evening. Their goal at the conference is to have a good time. The spouses have activities including dog-sledding, driving on the frozen lake and, of course, skiing.

Entrepreneurs, inventors or managers in technology, design, art and science are exempt from the bankers’ dress code and adopt their own dress and manner. They were invited by organizers on the recommendation of a high-ranking official, do not have to pay the admission fee and certainly not the full admission fee. They want to attend discussions about the future of technology or the industry in which they specialize. Some of them are members of the Forum of Young Global Leaders that the WEF organizes and runs.

Their goals: Sometimes they are confused, not knowing just where they have ended up. Sometimes they take advantage of the proximity to the big money to try to recruit investors or donors for their research laboratories. Sometimes, if they have a company or a product, they don the hat of a salesperson or business-development manager, and simply sell.