The firm that most threatens McKinsey is…

Conventional wisdom tells us that McKinsey, The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Bain only really compete with each other.

But as the tectonic plates of the consulting industry are shifting, there’s mounting evidence that this is simply no longer true. Sure, the MBB firms might still retain an aura of differentiation through the prestige of their brands, but as client demand changes, and as firms of all stripes converge around digital transformation, there’s a serious danger that McKinsey, BCG, and Bain’s obsession with each other is blinding them to other threats.

Take McKinsey’s clients. We asked current users of McKinsey which firm they’d pick as their first choice in a range of consulting services, if they were given free reign*. Unsurprisingly, large proportions of its clients are loyal–on average, 20% say they’d pick McKinsey as their first choice firm regardless of service. But, looking at the table below, we can see that their loyalty varies considerably depending on which service they’re thinking about. And the arms into which they’re likely to drift are anything but the familiar foes.

For example, when it comes to services with a technology flavour, it’s IBM Global Business Services that has captured the eye of McKinsey’s clients. McKinsey may protest that IBM is playing in a very different market: IBM does the doing while McKinsey does the thinking. For some types of work, that no doubt remains true. But it’s also true that McKinsey has seven different sub-brands and 85 different solutions because it recognises both the need for “new forms of expertise and insight” and that “the line between advisory and execution work has blurred” (McKinsey’s words, not ours). If it’s not after some share of the same market as IBM, then what is it doing?

In fact, when it comes to the lucrative digital transformation market — a market that McKinsey surely wouldn’t even try to suggest it’s not interested in — even Deloitte and Accenture appear to loom as a larger threat to McKinsey than its traditional competitors do.

None of this will come as any great surprise to many people, but it’s a salutary reminder to those that subscribe to conventional wisdom about strategy firms that things are no longer as they once were. And the trouble is that, in our experience at least, those most likely to subscribe to conventional wisdom about strategy firms are strategy firms themselves.

*We asked this of all firms’ clients, not just McKinsey’s. In November and December 2017 we surveyed 3,197 senior buyers of consulting services across the world. Each told us about three consulting firms they feel familiar enough with to comment on, giving us 689 responses about McKinsey. Two-hundred and thirty-four of those are direct clients of McKinsey. 

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