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Super competitors—you’d be ‘MAD’ to ignore them

Seen by clients as consistently strong across the full breadth of capabilities needed in a major programme, ‘super competitor’ professional services firms can bring together multiple skills to address clients’ most complex needs.

From the time the pandemic hit, we started to notice a pattern in both our conversations with clients and our vast surveys of their opinions. Three firms were more spoken about than all the others: McKinsey, Accenture, and Deloitte. We also saw these firms move up the rankings in our client perception surveys—clients spoke very positively about the quality of work delivered by them, regardless of service line, and the value they deliver.

We started to wonder: Are these firms now “super competitors” in the professional services market? By which we mean, these firms have succeeded more than others in being considered for work outside their “core” heritage areas of strength, and are thus best positioned to help clients with transformation, sustainability, and whatever the next mega-trend will be. For Deloitte, that means being seen as more than an accounting firm; for Accenture, being seen as credible in strategy and operations, not just technology; and for McKinsey, convincing clients that it can do more than produce PowerPoints and insights.

It was long a theory, but now we have data to back it up. Since the start of 2022, we’ve been asking clients to tell us which firms they use for different types of work. Overall, Deloitte, Accenture, and McKinsey are the most common answers. Below is a selection of the services we asked about, ranging from the tech-heavy (cybersecurity), to Big Four home turf (financial management), to strategy, to areas with no obvious historical owner—like innovation and sustainability. Whatever the subject, McKinsey, Accenture, and Deloitte are up there.

We also asked clients which other firms they’d shortlisted for the same work. As well as being the most used, Deloitte, Accenture, and McKinsey are among the most considered. The rest of the Big Four are close, but not quite super competitors—they’re very often considered, but don’t win the work quite as frequentlywhile the other strategy firms are clustered together, further away.

Data based on client surveys conducted in 12 markets from January to July 2022. In total, 1222 clients were surveyed.

What does this mean for the market?

The first implication is that perhaps a sense of competitive demarcation is coming back into the market, but drawn along completely different lines to before. This time, rather than being about capitalising on historical areas of strength, the divide is between those that are firmly in the multidisciplinary, cross-functional space, and those that are not quite there yet.  

Our hypothesis is that a super competitor is seen as consistently strong across the full breadth of capabilities a client might require in a major programme, and is able to bring those skills together to address clients’ most complex needs. Having only part of the puzzle (e.g. technology capabilities without strategic skills) locks a firm out of this group. Similarly, it’s no use having the required breadth of services if your firm isn’t agile enough to piece it all together.  

Second, it challenges the way we think about the role of brand and its influence on how clients buy in professional services. Most brand funnels focus on perceptions of specific service lines, and are then stitched together to give an “overall” view. If the greatest growth in professional services is in work that requires multiple sets of expertise to come together, are buyers’ thoughts on an individual service really that important? Our data indicates that brand power comes from higher-level, “master brand” associations, rather than of those in narrow contexts.  

Third, what do we call this new group of firms? Professional services loves an acronym. DAM has obvious issues, likewise MAD. And MDA is perhaps a bit too close to the party drug, so it leaves us with the rather dull ADM.  

Whatever we end up calling them, the wider market needs to think about how it competes with the three big beasts in the future.