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MBB Consulting: Why McKinsey, Bain and BCG lead the way

McKinsey, Bain and BCG lead the consulting industry. Almost 40% of Fortune 500 CEOs are MBB alumni and rarely has a graduate been known to decline an MBB job offer. Having MBB on your CV is a sure fire way to a free MBA.

At the firm level they get all the best contracts. Very rarely will a business actually choose a Big 4 firm over MBB for a strategy project, unless it needs large scale (digital) implementation. No other firms have ever worked in any meaningful capacity for a government or for FAANG.

So what separates MBB from the pack? The other top consulting firms also operate an up-or-out system, a highly regimented approach, recruitment policy and global footprint.

MBB are the best at marketing themselves.

They do this incredibly cleverly and in an indirect way. This status has taken these firms years to attain and may well remain with them forever. Even the recent disastrous dealings McKinsey have had in Angola and South Africa don’t seem to have hurt their reputation too much. They still do the most lucrative work and attract the best graduates.

1. Public Image

This might seem obvious. It is the way in which MBB’s public image is managed that is so crucial. You will never see a bill board saying “come and work at McKinsey”“. Nor will you ever witness an employee or HR Director pointing out how Bain is better than firm X.

They do this indirectly. They show rather than tell.

Of course it goes without saying that a lot of the marketing work is already done in this sense. Their reputation goes before them and their extensive list of alumni running the world, is a big pulling factor. It is becoming common knowledge that people like John Legend, Pete Buttigieg, Sundar Pichai etc, once worked at MBB. This was one of Marvin Bower’s ideas. If you can just be the best by doing the best work, the rest will take care of itself.

Indirect advertising chiefly takes place via recruitment events and other conference-esque opportunities for people interested in consulting to gather in one place. Creating a strong impression on graduates and students lasts with them for a lifetime.

For example, only MBB run any pre-application workshops. BCG even took a group of students from around Europe to a Paris hotel last October on their “Unlimited Trip”. McKinsey being their marketing even earlier, engaging with aspiring sixth form students via their McKinsey Academy.

Here is a Top Consulting Firms summary of the 3 firms.

2. Applying

Compared to their peers, looking for a job and applying to MBB is extraordinarily easy. Their portals are sleek and their HR teams reply pronto.

Perhaps more importantly, it is highly personalised. Where Oliver Wyman and AT Kearney offer a generic psychometric and numeracy test, MBB create incredibly specific ones. For example, McKinsey run the Digital Assessment and the PST.

This a seriously compelling marketing strategy. Anyone interested in the industry will have applied or considered applying at some point and therefore witnessed this process. This leaves a lasting impression of professionalism.

3. Intellectualism

This is another rather ’roundabout’ market strategy, but an incredibly effective one.

McKinsey, Bain and BCG all have intellectual or research oriented departments. The McKinsey Global Institute, the BCG Henderson Institute and Bain Insights.

These sub-divisions not only produce important research into business and global trends, but they are frequently cited by other publications. This simply broadens their image and makes them household names. They are not just profit-creating companies but they are also sources of authority on issues people read about in the paper.

HBR (Harvard Business Review) for example, refers to MBB’s intellectual teams an extraordinary amount. Many people have even tried to measure the firms’ relative influence by counting the number of citations.

This phenomenon has led to their leaders and CEOs becoming more celebrity like. They are increasingly asked for comment in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal etc.

This is a sly marketing strategy that also just seems to take care of itself. The more these institutes do good work, the more people publicise it on their behalf!

What they don’t talk about

This has got MBB to a position where they don’t need to talk about all the other things that they lead the filed on.

Things like a slightly premium salary and slightly better exit options are things that people just know. That they don’t talk about these aspects probably adds a sense of allure to what MBB do.

For more on how McKinsey et al. carved out such an immense reputation, check out Ethan Rasiel’s The McKinsey Way.

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  • Will Bennett

    Will Bennett is a Cambridge graduate. He worked as a Consultant and Senior Consultant at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in London. Will is the Founder of The Cambridge Consultant.