Why the FT consulting firm rankings should represent the start, rather than the end, of a discussion about brand.

This week the Financial Times published its ranking of management consulting firms in the UK, in partnership with Statista. It’s based on a survey of both senior executives in industry and management consultants themselves, and covers 15 sectors and 14 different consulting services. The top-ranked firms are the ones with the highest number of recommendations across different categories.

The big names reign supreme, with Deloitte, KPMG, McKinsey, and Accenture topping the ranking in different slices of the data. They rank alongside each other in categories that a while back, would have seemed strange: Accenture alongside Deloitte for finance, risk, & compliance; McKinsey and KPMG in organisation and change. It certainly chimes with the convergence we’ve seen in the UK market over the last few years: Digital transformation is levelling the playing field and ripping up the rule book about which firms compete for what type of work. Conversations with clients increasingly include statements like: “We needed a digital strategy, so we invited McKinsey, Deloitte, and Accenture in to tender”–a combination of firms we would have rarely heard together five years ago.

But what else does this data tell us, other than a) clients (and, in this case, consultants too) are willing to recommend big brands, and b) clients recognise that lots of firms do lots of things quite well these days? If you’re the leader of a consulting firm and want to deepen your understanding your brand and its potential to be an engine of growth, does it help? That almost certainly wasn’t the aim of the survey, but I don’t think it does.

For example, while Accenture might, as the survey suggests, be very good at digital transformation, strategy, compliance, and supply chain management as discrete services, how often is that how consulting is actually bought and sold? We estimate that multidisciplinary transformation accounts for almost half the new growth in consulting, and is growing at a rate that far outstrips traditional consulting services. Clients here are less concerned with how good a firm is in an individual area, and more interested in how a firm can knit distinct services together seamlessly, and deliver game-changing results.

In fact, while our data about the quality of individual consulting firms’ work across different services suggests that UK clients are broadly satisfied with what they’re getting from the major players–concurring with the broad range of accolades they pick up in the FT–other data we have suggests it might be worth keeping the champagne on ice for the moment.

McKinsey may have won 11 gold medals, but just 40% of the clients and prospects we spoke to think it adds more in value than it charges in fees. Deloitte and Accenture’s numbers are very similar, on this count. On average, only 38% of clients agree that consulting firms add more in value than they charge in fees, while 50% see working with consultants as purely transactional–they get what you pay for and nothing more.

Having an array of ‘recommendation medals’ in lots of different areas is all well and good, but that alone doesn’t translate into a value-adding experience for most clients. And in a rapidly bifurcating market, any firm that wants to assert itself at the less commoditised end of the consulting spectrum really needs to figure out how to fix that issue, fast. So, while it’s nice to see consulting firms being recognised for the good work they do, the FT’s rankings should serve as a reminder to consulting leaders that the discussion about brand needs to go a whole lot further.

For a deeper understanding of the consulting industry in the UK, see our “Perceptions of consulting in the UK” report which will be published in February 2018.