What we can learn about the consulting market from Tony Soprano.

Tony Soprano, lead protagonist of the critically acclaimed HBO TV series, was a hardened criminal and brutal murderer. I liked him. I doubt I was alone.

I liked him because he was a family man who would come home from a day of hardened criminality and brutal murdering and try to do the best for his family. And then sit down in front of the TV with a bowl of ice-cream. I liked him because he was vulnerable.

In fact that vulnerability was sufficiently acute that it led him to the psychiatrist’s couch, confirming in the process both that America’s psychological problems extended to all corners of society, and that Americans really, really, like talking about themselves.

I don’t think Americans are alone: This is arguably a phenomenon that extends to all parts of the English-speaking world. And, if you’ll bear with me, I think we can learn something about the consulting market from that.

I’ve been working on our market attractiveness index for 2017 recently, one part of which requires us to measure the size of consulting markets relative to the GDP of the economies in which they sit. That tells us more than market size alone about how well established consulting is an industry in a particular country and how likely clients are to turn to consultants for help. Top of the tree, by this measure, are the UK, Australia, and the US: Countries that, if only linguistically, are culturally similar.

Now, part of the answer to that is undoubtedly that these are mature economies that have reached a level of sophistication where competitive advantage is hard-won and requires the help of experts. It’s also, presumably, got something to do with the fact that management consulting is an American invention in the first place, and has spread especially effectively to countries most like America.

But I wonder if there are deeper cultural issues at play here, and whether one of them might be concerned with the fact that the English speaking world is given to self-examination to such an extent that mafia bosses need shrinks. In other words that consulting isn’t far removed from counselling, and that countries like America like doing it more than anyone else.

If I’m right then it also tells us something about the prospects for the consulting market in other countries. For instance, the great lure of China for consultants is the idea that its consulting market might grow to represent a similar proportion of the Chinese economy as the American consulting market does of the American economy. Or, to put it another way, that there’s about $30bn of growth waiting to happen in China. But I’m not sure that’s going to happen: The two smallest consulting markets of any note in the world, relative to the size of their economies, are in China and Russia. And those are countries that remain resolutely, even avowedly, un-American. I’m not convinced that a $30bn consulting market in China, or a $5bn consulting market in Russia*, is solely dependent on economic maturity. I think it’s a matter of culture.

Ask yourself this question: Can you imagine the head of a criminal organisation in Russia or China sitting on a psychiatrist’s couch talking about his anxiety issues? No, nor can I.

*The approximate size those consulting markets would be if they represented the same proportion of their host economies that the American consulting market does of its.