A portrait of John Rossant
Life is always something of a puzzle. The trick is to make all the pieces fit in a neat and logical sequence. For John Rossant, the picture just seemed to develop organically from an auspicious start to his current position as Executive Chairman of PublicisLive, each piece fitting on top of the next, from typewriter to Twitter, as it were. But it was by no means the humdrum life of a careerist…
Behind his patrician features and firm, no-nonsense demeanour lurks another, earlier Rossant, a slightly dishevelled, curious, information-aggregating journalist of unusual talent and ambition, a man who not only found himself at the right time and the right place, but also knew how to take advantage of each new situation.
He was already born with printer’s ink in his veins. His father, Murray Rossant, was an active journalist who had worked for Newsweek, was on the editorial board of the New York Times and also headed the Twentieth Century Fund, a group that promoted progressive public policy. Young John, in his own words, “read the New York Times at the age of five at the breakfast table,” and later went on to parlay a passion for Arabic and Middle Eastern studies into a scholarship that took him to Cairo in the late seventies.
It was there he caught the journalism bug. Before the age of cheap flights and citizen journalism, writing dispatches from one of the world’s most turbulent spots was actually considered a valuable activity. At the time, the intricacies of Arab politics were not nearly as important to the Western public than the fixation with the price of gas at the pump, which were rising steeply with each oil shock. For John Rossant, it was an epiphany that would dominate the next few years of his life: “If you understand oil and gas, it’s a good way of grasping the mechanics of the global economy.” Soon, he was contributing information and thoughts on energy to Business Week.
He started in New York, moved on to Paris and was then made bureau chief in Rome, from where he covered the Middle East, before returning to Paris to act as Europe editor. “Those were the good old days of journalism, when you could really spend weeks on end investigating a story,” he says with just a hint of wistfulness. “I spent ten years covering wars, revolutions, crises, assassinations and it was great fun.”
He also took a sabbatical year from the magazine, which he spent essentially with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most creative and successful investors. “It was a great experience, like getting three Harvard MBAs,” Rossant comments.
A new chapter
Any journalist, reporter or writer worth his salt would probably be quite satisfied with his lot at this point. Rossant was living in Paris as a major player in one of the world’s top business publications. On the way, in 1992, he had also married Antonella Caruso, with whom he has three sons. She was an adviser to the Italian Foreign Minister at the time – and currently directs a programme in Iraq to promote political reconciliation.
But John Rossant is not a man to lounge around on laurels. “It was all a lot of fun, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to do something new.”
His break finally came at a function during which he was approached by Maurice Lévy, Chairman and CEO of Publicis Groupe, and offered the job of communications director for the entire group, one of the largest communications and advertising enterprises in the world. It gave Rossant the opportunity to develop a few of his own ideas about communications.
“I saw leadership events as a very good way of spreading a message,” he points out. “Some companies take a full page ad, but to have your CEO get up and say smart things at an event or to have smart people from your company participate in forums is a very good way to communicate.”
One of his first projects to be implemented was the Monaco Media Forum, which was intended as a European counterpart to the prestigious Sun Valley Conference. “In all modesty, it turned out to be a good idea,” says Rossant with barely a hint of pride lurking in his voice. “It’s in its fifth year and is the go-to place if you want to hear what is happening in the world of media, how newspapers will be distributed digitally, what’s the future of content on mobile phones.”
What Rossant really wanted, however, was to be “more operational,” to use his own words, and run his own company. Two years ago, Lévy surprised him again with the offer of a lifetime: Executive Chairman of PublicisLive, the Geneva company that produces events for the World Economic Forum. Within months of Rossant’s arrival, the WEF signed a new 7-year exclusive contract with PublicisLive. Making sure Davos is produced on schedule and in the right way is a daunting task, as Rossant suggests wryly: “It’s like putting a man on the moon, there are lots of moving parts.”
At the same time, he felt that the Swiss events market had a lot of room to grow and so he began applying know-how and experience to other opportunities with quite a lot of success. Some clients must remain confidential but one pre-eminent contract has come from the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs: the 13th Sommet de la Francophonie, to be held in Montreux in October 2010. “This is like putting a man on Mars, there are around 3,000 participants, 70 heads of delegation; it’s complicated and we are organizing everything from A to Z.”
A sweet spot to be in
And so in his second career as an executive, John Rossant is thriving. While his former work becomes increasingly digitized and ephemeral, with journalists losing their livelihood and papers cutting back or folding, he has found a new way to generate value from the analogue world.
Conferences and forum-type events are a growth model, he feels, and they can genuinely help find solutions to important challenges facing the planet, like urbanization. A year ago, for instance, Abu Dhabi contacted him to organize a Monaco-like summit on emerging media in emerging markets and on how to integrate the up to two billion new people – users and customers – who will be coming online in the next three to four years. The first event in what is promising to become a series, obviously struck a nerve. Rupert Murdoch flew in for the keynote address and there were other VIPs giving input, like Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt.
“For a News Corp, Google or AOL, and for Publicis Groupe, by the way, growth in the next decade is going to come from China, the Middle East, India and Africa, and it’s obviously going to be a sweet spot to be in.” So once again, it seems, John Rossant is in the right place at the right time. And for all intents and purposes he is still having fun.