The Marketing Strategist:

Do It Like Davos: Five Lessons for Engaging the C-Suite

May 11, 2017

If you’ve ever been to the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, chances are you’re anxious to go back, even if you’re forced once again to share a closet-sized bedroom with a colleague.

You want to be there because it’s the pre-eminent gathering of the global business, political, and social. The last meeting in January 2017 attracted almost 3,000 C-suite executives and their government and NGO peers—most of whom shelled out an average $30,000 or more for the three-day event.

Your competitors want to be there, too. Corporate membership with WEF is capped at 1,000 and the list includes most of the top global firms. Even more exclusive, the Forum has a limit of 100 strategic partners, many of which invest $1 million or more in event-based programs to build engagement and long-term relationships with their Davos peers.  

So how do they do it? In a world overflowing with C-suite enticements, how has the WEF risen to the top? And perhaps more important, what lessons can we marketers learn from WEF success to apply to our own programs to engage at the executive level?

executive board room

Five best practices contribute to the success of the Forum, each of them reinforcing the others in a virtuous circle of success.

1. You need a purpose (even if you don’t fully achieve it)

The WEF has an inspirational and philanthropic motto: “committed to improving the state of the world.” Critics have blasted Davos as a playground for elites for years but the stated purpose has provided an important motivation for participants, sponsors, and partners for just as long.

2. Build a self-reinforcing network

WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab is considered by Forbes to be “indisputably the most powerful connector in the world,” and he has worked tirelessly to create self-reinforcing loops of network development around his own efforts, including:

  • An active WEF Board of Trustees drawn from the top echelons of government, business, finance, and academia (e.g., nine chairmen of top global firms, the heads of three multinational institutions, the president emerita of MIT, and the queen of Jordan)
  • Active partner programs and committees with senior executives from partner companies responsible for designing industry, regional, and “systemic” projects and initiatives
  • Multiple regional and industry events that revolve around the annual meeting with additional opportunities to build community and extend the network

3. Develop outstanding thought leadership

The annual meeting agenda, covering issues ranging across climate change, global migration, inclusive growth, cybersecurity, business and social change, gender gaps, and Europe after Brexit, is just the tip of a thought leadership iceberg managed by the Forum.

A dedicated staff works with a wide range of external partners and experts to conduct research and publish reports on an even wider range of critical global topics. A Global Leadership Fellows program provides another source of high powered contributors, too. The quality is high, and the Forum works diligently to disseminate their materials with integrated campaign plans blending print, digital, and social media.

4. Accumulate brain power

A primary reason for the success of WEF events and thought leadership is the quality of the people who work directly or through secondments inside the organization. The Forum competes aggressively for talent with the top firms in the world, such as McKinsey and Goldman Sachs; maintains a salary and compensation structure at that high level; and dedicates a very large share of its annual budget to rewarding staff.

5. Expand the franchise…gradually

Beginning in the 1970s as the European Management Forum with a single, annual event, WEF has expanded steadily but carefully ever since. After years globalizing, expanding, and perfecting the annual meeting in Davos, the Forum has moved gradually to extend its programs in three dimensions:

  • By region, with regional meetings now held in Africa, ASEAN, and Latin America
  • By age, with two different age-based programs, the Young Global Leaders aimed at people under 40 and the Global Shapers Community aimed at people 20-30
  • By sector, with initiatives including the New Champions meeting for tech companies, an International Business Council, a Family Business Community, and the Community of Chairmen

Even if they overlap to some degree, these newer activity streams provide more relevance to the targeted groups, additional networking and insight, and, of course, additional revenue.

Following these five lessons, the WEF has developed an extremely compelling engagement model with literally thousands of C-suite level participants clamoring to pay their way in. Segmented offerings for individuals and organizations provide multiple revenue streams and WEF financial performance has improved year by year alongside its broadening and deepening programs for engagement.

The Forum does have one important challenge to consider: who follows the leader? At the age of 78, founder Klaus Schwab is not likely to continue as executive chairman for too many more years. Succession planning, an oft-overlooked concern for the leaders of any major organization or program, is the WEF’s next big question.

For more on executive engagement, check out ITSMA’s recent research report, Engaging the C-Suite, our infographic on Six Steps to Executive Engagement, and review of Cognizant’s three-pronged approach.

Want the latest news from ITSMA?

Subscribe to our newsletters and alerts for ITSMA blog posts, research publications, events, and more.

Further reading