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Sun Valley conference sees Sorrell, AOL's Armstrong, Moonves weigh up Brexit risks

Tim Armstrong at the 2016 Sun Valley conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Michael Newberg | CNBC
Tim Armstrong at the 2016 Sun Valley conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.

The annual Allen & Co conference, gathering some 300 media and tech CEOs, plus some of the most powerful investors in the world, comes on the heels of a shocking vote in favor of a Brexit.

With the markets on a roller coaster in the wake of the U.K's decision to exit the European Union (EU), CEOs at Sun Valley are evaluating the potential implications for their businesses and the economy as a whole.

WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell says there's no question that the vote is bad for the economy.

"On the question of the economy I think even the leavers thought it was best to stay in," says Sorrell in an interview on CNBC. But Sorrell is optimistic that "the game's not over yet," with another two-year negotiation period to start when Article 15 is triggered.

For the most part, however, the executives at the conference expect the Brexit to happen.

"IBM is global, Watson is global," says David Kenny, who runs IBM's artificial intelligence Watson division, and he was CEO of The Weather Company, which he sold to IBM. "We care about the whole world. Anytime there's a change, it's a reason to stop and make sure we're ready."

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong is similarly figuring out how to shift strategy if needed.

"People are trying to focus on reality now: What does it mean? How do you adjust your business?" Tim Armstrong tells CNBC. "[The Brexit] was a little bit of a surprise obviously to global markets, but for us, we can't worry about that. The macro is important but for us the micro of our business is super important."

The fact that the vote was such a surprise strikes investor Michael Ovitz as a particularly bad sign.

"All the people we talked to in banking told us [the U.K.] was going to stay in the EU," says the former mega-agent. "If those people didn't know, you can imagine the fallout. The people that voted it out don't seem to be ready to handle the situation."

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron said shortly after the leave campaign won the June 23 Brexit referendum that he would step down, setting off a fractious leadership competition within the ruling Conservatives that has already seen key leave campaigner Boris Johnson decline to run. Another power in the leave campaign, U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, has also stepped down.

A private jet lands at the Sun Valley airport, joining dozens of other private and corporate jets already parked there, in Hailey, Idaho.
Rick Wilking | Reuters
A private jet lands at the Sun Valley airport, joining dozens of other private and corporate jets already parked there, in Hailey, Idaho.

But not everyone is so concerned.

"At the moment we don't know whether [Brexit] is going to affect us or not," says NBC Universal's Vice Chairman Ron Meyer. "A lot of people in England thought Brexit was the right decision."

But Meyer says even with Universal's exposure to Europe through its film studio and from European tourism to his U.S. parks, he's confident that growth will continue. "I'm an optimist...The tourism from Europe is phenomenal and we haven't seen a slowdown."

And CBS CEO Les Moonves is celebrating a lack of exposure to Europe.

"Fortunately we generate very little revenue from the U.K.," Moonves says. "We're not as big internationally. It hasn't affected us at all. The U.S. market came back quickly and now we're up higher than we were [before Brexit]."

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