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February 5, 2012

Davos Man Is As Nervous As The Rest Of Us

By Spear's

The wives of Duke Bluebeard wanted to see what was behind every door, just like Davos Man. So how, asks William Cash, is this rarefied breed faring in our financial and moral crises?

In Duke Bluechip’s Castle

The wives of Duke Bluebeard wanted to see what was behind every door, just like Davos Man. So how, asks William Cash, is this rarefied breed faring in our financial and moral crises?

What is the point of spending $71,000 on a ‘non-VIP’ invitation to Davos? This is a question that often emerges from the post-mortem of the annual Swiss pilgrimage of the soi-disant global elite. According to published accounts, the must-attend gathering of world leaders, oligarchs, business tycoons, hedgies, bankers, power-brokers, academics, economists, pundits, artists and various celeb and PR hangers-on cost $156 million in ‘expenses’ last year, just to host — and brings in revenue of $157 million, including repeat bookings from at least 69 billionaires.      

It’s not an easy question to answer as Davos can feel a little like a marathonmcocktail party or elongated traipse up the red carpet at the Golden Globes before you finally pass through the airport security of the Belvedere Hotel. It always reminds me of Duke Bluebeard’s castle, the setting of Bartok’s opera in which guarded doors lead to various rooms and parties which the thrice-married Duke warns his newest lover (who is determined to gatecrash every room, invited or not) against entering for fear of what she will discover. Behind the first door is a torture chamber, behind the third a treasury, behind the sixth a lake of tears, and Davos Man wants to unlock all of them out of curiosity and for fear of being left out.

It was George Steiner who took In Bluebeard’s Castle as the title of his fiercely intellectual 1971 stand-off against the demise of modern Western culture, and I would be mightily curious to know what the Geneva-based professor — and expert on Freud — would make of the Davos circus. The number of parties and events each night (with hedgies like Daniel Loeb or academics like Niall Ferguson often having to RSVP saying they can attend for ‘main course’ or ‘starter’ only due to being triple-booked) seems to confirm Steiner’s depressing postmodern thesis that a world in which the defining driver is the unbridled pursuit of consumer wealth — or alpha — combined with the death of religion (not a subject that tends to troubles Davos Man) has resulted in a world that is ‘intolerably deprived’ and — above all — lonely at the top.

Ironically it was Matthew Freud, Sigmund Freud’s own great-grandson and another member of the Freud family business of pioneer thinking, who hosted perhaps the most interesting event at Davos this year, namely the launch of a new house publication called The Brewery Journal (see page 54), dedicated to innovative thinking about family busi- nesses. Matthew explains the genesis of the Brewery project and facility that he has built as a mini ‘Deep Think’ com- pound in the grounds of his house in Oxfordshire, where a old set of barns have been converted into an ultra-VIP private corporate ‘retreat’ for the world’s top business leaders and family business heads.

Freud is also right to make the point that advisers need to intuitively understand the DNA ‘value’ of a company brand or business, not just its stock value, and also advise such companies on long-term vision. I was amused that Cad- bury’s family ‘values’ frowned on even the idea of advertising — not an idea that Kraft shares, I am sure.

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Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising company, would probably have some advice for News Corp, too. Today, true happiness and meaning (and doubtless a basis for performance-based ‘bonuses’) for CEOs at Davos can be found in their ranking on Sorrell’s new ‘Global Corporate Reputation Index’ — a new corporate brand gospel according to WPP which was launched at the Belvedere at a party attended by the likes of George Osborne, Lord Mandelson and financial PR guru Roland Rudd. Reading out the winners made me realise the extent to which the richer or more globally successful a CEO — or financier — becomes today, the greater the need for validation. Strip away their Monocle puffer jacket and Davos Man is just as insecure as the rest of us mortals.

That is, for sure, one reason why so many of the world’s billionaires come to Davos — so they can think of themselves as being member of a club, albeit a tribe whose initiation rituals include such costs as $689 to take a limo from Zurich airport, even when your $137,000 ‘Industry Associate’ pass includes a free bus transfer. For Davos Wife, it is de rigueur to splurge CHF750 (£500) on arrival securing a pass to the eau-là-là Davos Wellness and Pleasure Pool Centre — no mere hotel spa will do.

The reason these modern-day victims of Bluebeard like staying in the turret suites of the Belvedere is that membership of the Davos tribe is a way of reaffirming that the world needs people like themselves to be leaders, and that it is still not too late to set up a foundation or fund some research (so long as it is not into social inequality) so that they can have in their obituary: ‘He didn’t just make a ton of money, he was a Renaissance man, a true philanthropist who made a difference to the world.’

This angst never troubled the super-rich denizens or leaders of the 16th or 17th centuries, when super-rich aristocrats and clergy could never have created a gathering that was committed ‘to improving the state of the world’. Back then they were never in any doubt about what the big question of the day were. The world was divided not into the 99 Per Cent and the 1 Per Cent, or the Haves and the Have Nots, but rather was defined in terms of Heaven and Hell.

Davos gives the modern billionaire or would-be oligarch a chance to look out of the window of his tiny room in the Posthotel — a room so small he would never even dare put his cook in such a cabin on his yacht — and ask: what’s it all about, then?

As you curl up in the tiny pine-panelled room with your wife, which is so tiny that there is not even enough space for a hairdresser to set up for a room visit, you promise yourself that Davos has taught you to enjoy the simple things in life again. Like reading the op-ed page at the bar of Schneider’s café with a crisp international edition of the New York Times. Like walking along to the Congress. Like not needing a limo to go three blocks to a dinner and enjoying the camaraderie of being driven around in a shuttle van to a fondue dinner hosted by some Swiss bank that lost me 24 per cent of my net worth back in 2008. And that party with the Russian who had his own Cossack choir the other night. And to think I was about to spend £250,000 on flying Lionel Richie over to sing at my 50th at Arki’s place at Harbour Island. In fact, I’ve actually saved myself a fortune by coming to Davos and having a mountain reality check. Isn’t real life grand?

Davos is truly about just showing up. Even if you’re running on broke, have had to fly commercial and your Amex Black card is currently suspended, the fact that you are here is proof enough that you’re successful — a natural, fully paid-up and deserving member of the world’s elite because you are a ‘white badge holder’ and that makes it so.

While the official congress halls may be full of worthy liberal thinking on how to make the world a better place — more egalitarian, democratic, meritocratic and less economically divided (read ‘class-driven’) — the truth is that Davos is a zero-sum game of those who have the white badge passes and those who do not. It reminds people that life is not fair, that there will always be winners and losers and that in the ever-growing divide that exists between the 1 Per Cent and the 99 Per Cent — the subject of Spear’s new campaign (page 36) — nothing, but nothing, is more important than being part of that exclusive and elusive 1 Per Cent club. And Davos remains its spiritual address.

Image by DJ Munro after Gustave Doré

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