page title icon The Big 4 Firms: A Guide for 2021

Who are The Big 4? Why do people call them that? And which one is the best to work in?

“The Big 4” are Deloitte, EY, PWC and KPMG and they are grouped together because they’re similar in size and are generally equally able to provide a wide array of business services including audit, assurance, taxation, management consulting, actuarial, corporate finance, and legal services.

They’re the largest accounting firms in the world, but they provide a lot of other services too, including strategy consulting services.

The Big 4 are the biggest consulting firms, but they’re not the most prestigious consulting firms. They’re more accurately categorized as professional service networks or professional services firms. And in that category, they’re the 4 biggest in the world.

Inside The Big 4, it isn’t always obvious which team is responsible for consulting. Their strategy consulting arms are often called something a bit strange. For example, in most countries, Deloitte’s is named “Strategy and Operations”. Similarly, their other financial services are often called “[Company-Name] Consulting”, even though they really aren’t consulting. Deloitte has a Tax Consulting division, for example, which is really just a tax advisory service to big business.

The Big 4 Consulting Subsidiaries

Be careful not to confuse Big 4 Consulting with their subsidiaries.

In the last ten years, they have all bought out smaller strategy boutiques. PWC bought Strategy& (Booz Allen Hamilton) and Deloitte bought Deloitte Monitor.

These smaller subsidiaries are generally considered more prestigious in the consulting world. They align much more closely with MBB in their style and in the types of projects they engage with. For all intents and purposes, the work they carry out and their leadership structures are completely separate.

The Big 4 Are Hybrid Consulting Firms

The Big 4 are hybrids. They are the results of what was left after the 80s in which there was a big series of mergers. Deloitte, for example, is really called Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited; a result of a merger of all these firms that took place over the course of the 20th century.

This makes them very different to MBB or the “Top 3” which have very different histories characterized by visionary founders and a tight focus on what their service will be.

The Big 4 offer a much wider scope of services and traditionally do longer projects, bringing in different sub-teams. For example, a project to advise on a merger, might include IT teams, Strategy teams and a Tax team to optimise their synergies.

Watch this video for a helpful comparison between the “Top 3” consulting firms and the “Big 4” (basically accounting) firms.

How Are The Big 4 Different To Other Consulting Practices?

Along with Accenture, the Big 4 approach strategy problems in different ways to other consultancies, especially the strategy houses like Roland Berger and OC&C. They also typically approach strategy and operations much more in partnership than as separate arms of a business.

Here are the essential differences:

  1. The Big 4 do more implementation, whereas MBB place more emphasis on the strategy / ideation phase.
  2. The Big 4 currently have better equipped technology and IT teams. They spend a lot of time integrating digital services and doing software work.

    The Big 4 have access to way more specialists in a range of financial services roles. They can therefore integrate tax or assurance roles with a consultancy project very easily.
  3. The Big 4 take on different clients. McKinsey’s clients are higher profile, but they work on a smaller % of the firm. Deloitte or Accenture are more likely to work on the entire firm, with their larger personnel resources.
  4. The projects are different. Working at the Big 4 includes more doing than thinking. They employ lots of analysts in huge project teams as opposed to MBB’s streamlined approach.

As you can imagine, this approach does not suit everyone. Lots of people leave after two or three years. Either they move on to a different exit opportunity or they move to another strategy consulting practice.

It is more common to move from Big 4 to another consulting practice than it is between other consultancies due to this big culture difference; lots of people find that it just isn’t for them.

Watch this video to discover a common reason people leave Big 4 consulting jobs.

The Big 4 Consulting Firms by Revenue

In figuring out which firm has been the leader in recent times it is important to look at them in terms of revenue. They all operate a similarly high personnel to fee ratio and so these figures are directly comparable.

Here is how Sam Ovens of Consulting.com breaks down their revenues of the big 4.

Deloitte: $38.8 Billion

  • $14.4 Billion Consulting & Advisory
  • $14.1 Billion Audit/Assurance/AERS
  • $7.4 Billion Tax
  • $3.5 Billion Other Professional Services

PwC: $37.68 Billion

  • $15.97 Billion Audit/Assurance/AERS
  • $12.25 Billion Consulting and Advisory
  • $9.46 Billion Tax

Ernst & Young: $31.4 Billion

  • $11.63 Billion Audit/Assurance/AERS
  • $8.53 Billion Consulting & Advisory
  • $8.18 Billion Tax
  • $3.07 Billion Other Professional Services

KPMG: $26.4 Billion

  • $10.39 Billion in Audit/Assurance/AERS
  • $10.18 Billion Consulting & Advisory
  • $5.83 Billion Tax

Which Is The Best Big 4 Firm To Work For?

In the consulting industry, the pecking order for the Big 4 changes year on year and differs immensely between offices.

KPMG always used to be the leader, but are now at the back of the pack.

In the US, Deloitte is streaking out ahead in consulting terms, even competing for business with McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company and BCG at times. Sometimes they are even referenced as MBBD.

PWC is probably the leader in the UK, although it doesn’t come anywhere near MBB.

For all of them, salaries will be significantly smaller than at more conventional strategy houses. In general, very few consultants would put a job offer from the Big 4 over another top ten strategy consulting practice.

In some countries, Big 4 Consulting offers some of the best, if not THE BEST consulting opportunities. In other countries, they’re looked down upon in terms of prestige and salary.

Big 4 Firms Salary: Which Pays Most?

Source: Big 4 Career Lab

Associates

 NYCChicagoDallasSeattle
Audit / Assurance$61,000$59,000$56,000$53,000
Advisory (Other)$72,000$69,000$67,000$70,000
Consulting$88,000$86,000$81,000$87,000
Tax$64,000$61,000$59,000$61,000

Senior Associates

 NYCChicagoDallasSeattle
Audit / Assurance$79,000$76,000$72,000$68,000
Advisory (Other)$94,000$90,000$87,000$92,000
Consulting$116,000$108,000$105,000$112,000
Tax$81,000$79,000$76,000$77,000

Manager

 NYCChicagoDallasSeattle
Audit / Assurance$112,000$108,000$101,000$98,000
Advisory (Other)$133,000$123,000$119,000$129,000
Consulting$162,000$159,000$137,000$157,000
Tax$118,000$112,000$106,000$112,000

Senior Manager

 NYCChicagoDallasSeattle
Audit / Assurance$151,000$147,000$140,000$132,000
Advisory (Other)$182,000$172,000$167,000$175,000
Consulting$220,000$215,000$202,000$217,000
Tax$159,000$152,000$147,000$152,000

Managing Director

 NYCChicagoDallasSeattle
Audit / Assurance$274,000$265,000$252,000$238,000
Advisory (Other)$324,000$310,000$301,000$315,000
Consulting$396,000$387,000$364,000$391,000
Tax$288,000$274,000$265,000$274,000

What Makes The Big 4 Different From The Top 3?

  • The Big 4 are much bigger than the Top 3. (About 10x the size.)
  • The Big 4 do implementation while the Top 3 focus on strategy.
  • The Big 4 specialize while the Top 3 are more generalist.

A Conflict Of Interests (Accounting vs Consulting)

Offering both accounting and consulting creates a bit of a conflict of interests. As a result, The Big 4 firms don’t provide accounting services to the same firms to which they provide consulting, tax advisory, assurance or other services. Considering that 497 of 500 S&P public companies are audited by the Big 4, this cuts out a lot of potential business!

Updated: 12 July, 2021




Analyzed by Will B

My name is Will. I am a Cambridge graduate and consultant working in London. I started this website to share insights, guides, and more about consulting. Learn more about Will.