In this article, we look through four trends that we’ve seen over the past few years: the changing needs of clients; increased hiring of consultants in-house; the growth of large “one-stop-shop players”; and the rise of smaller, more flexible consulting boutiques. Finally, we look at the immediate reactions from strategy firms, as well as what we think is going to be required for the industry to avoid Levitt’s “Marketing Myopia”. Strategy firms have clearly started to adapt, but in an increasingly digital world, they need to think of delivery models beyond just throwing smart people and industry experience at the problem. To do this, they must fully embrace technology.
On the first day of our consulting “mini-MBA”, we were taught about marketing myopia – a term coined by Theodore Levitt. It explains the pitfalls of focusing on marketing strictly from the standpoint of selling a specific product rather than from the standpoint of fulfilling customer needs.
At some point in its development, every industry can be considered a growth industry, based on the apparent superiority of its product. But in case after case, industries have fallen under the shadow of mismanagement. What usually gets emphasized is selling, not marketing. This is a mistake, since selling focuses on the needs of the seller, while marketing concentrates on the needs of the buyer.
As I re-read this paragraph now, I can’t help but feel it’s a message to be heeded by strategy consulting firms. Having helped their clients to overcome marketing myopia for years, there are some strong indicators that the early “disruption” we’ve seen in consulting, has only just begun.
THE CHANGING CLIENT NEEDS
As the world’s online interactions continue to grow, the needs of a large proportion of clients have changed.
- Firstly, the prevalence of data has changed clients’ needs. Previously, strategy consultancies were able to bring data from a market to a client. Insightful analysis of this would help identify trends and potential drivers of future change. Now, this data is not only far more readily available, but there are also far more internal data, which is often even more pertinent.
- Secondly, companies have built up more in-house skills and tools. They are becoming more effective in using their data. Products are now built around data, rather than seeing what data comes out as they sell their products/ services. This helps companies to constantly iterate and evolve. Fast-growing tech corporates are constantly iterating strategies, at all levels in the business, directly as a consequence of better data and insight.
- Thirdly, companies with a large online presence face very different challenges to more traditional industries. New worlds of UX, product management and Big Data are suddenly of critical focus.
- Finally, with the constant threat of recession and low levels of GDP growth, clients are more budget constrained than previously. In years gone by, the promise of 10x Return on Investment was sufficient to defend the large up-front fees. However, with more constraints, clients are starting to look for more flexible models that can be delivered at a lower price.
INCREASED HIRING OF CONSULTANTS IN-HOUSE
There’s always been a steady flow of consultants into the “strategy” teams of corporates. In fact, most graduates choose consultancy to “open doors” in industry. Traditionally, consultants would make their first step into a strategic role, and then look to move into a commercial role when they understand the business fully and had built up the necessary stakeholder network.
However, what’s starting to change is consultants are being hired into non-strategy roles. As the skills of consultants (analytics; insight; communication to senior-level stakeholders) become required in more areas of the business, consultants are increasingly being hired into commercial/ operational roles straight out of consulting. Equally, as consultancy becomes more functionally specialized (i.e., supply chain consultants; tech strategy consultants), there are more obvious entry points.
This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: as more consultants are in these teams, they look to hire “what they know” (i.e., more consultants). As numbers increase, not only is there less “need” for external consultants, there is also more competition for this talent.
THE GROWTH OF LARGE ONE-STOP-SHOP ADVISORS
The largest growing strategy firms over the past few years have been at the Big 4. Through the acquisition, and hiring senior partners, they are building strategy teams out of alumni from the familiar strategy brands (i.e., hiring from McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Oliver Wyman, LEK; acquisitions of Booz and Company (PWC) and Monitor (Deloitte)).
The Big Four are able to boast an impressive point of difference: these strong strategic minds are backed up with scale. On the functional side, they become a one-stop-shop: use them as a trusted advisor across accounting, tax, legal, strategy and operations/ implementation consulting. This scale is positioned as not only offering a more connected, end-to-end solution but also as providing large savings in cost.
On the people side, their immense size means they have more flexibility. They can offer smaller projects, and more flexible models – as capacity can be more easily managed.
THE SMALLER, MORE FLEXIBLE BOUTIQUES AND FREELANCERS
The other exciting development is the rise of freelancers and small two to three-person boutiques. This has become a popular career choice, offering more flexibility and independence. At one end you have boutiques, who staff whole teams and are positioned as direct competitors of the strategy firms. What’s less publicized is the smaller boutiques and freelancers.
At Movemeon, we are seeing a lot of interest in either a junior manager resource (stand-alone; good stakeholder management skills) or putting together small teams (manager and two analysts) to deliver strategic projects. Whilst the cost of these projects might appear very different to a traditional strategy consulting project, the set-up and delivery might not be all that different. While it’s unlikely these small boutiques/ freelancers will attack the core of strategy consulting work (i.e., critical Board decisions), the periphery of work that has slowly built up over the years is very much in danger from this more flexible, cost-effective model.
HOW ARE STRATEGY FIRMS ADAPTING
There are some notable reactions to the changes in the market. Not only are we seeing a new series of business innovation models, but consulting firms are also looking at new ways to have access to a larger, more flexible workforce.
The new innovation business models were well documented in the HBR article “Consulting on the cusp of disruption” in October 2013. This trend has continued, with new implementation, operations, analytics, benchmarking “arms” to the top strategy firms. Typically these are operating under the strategy brand name (i.e., McKinsey Solutions; McKinsey Implementation), but there are a few subsidiaries (i.e., Finalta is a subsidiary of McKinsey focused on benchmarking in FS). These are going to continue to develop, and am sure are a large part of the disruption we are going to see.
However more recently, another interesting trend has occurred. Consultancies are starting to respond to the requirement for more flexible delivery models. No longer is the “manager plus 2” model as relevant to some situations. Clients need longer-term engagements, typically for less intense periods. As the work becomes more functionally based, it also becomes more entrenched with the business. As such, things will move more slowly. No longer is delivery seen as buy-in from the excess – it’s delivering change to these functional areas, which will always take longer to embed.
We’ve noticed two interesting trends in consultancies looking to offer more flexibility:
- More flexible employment. The top-tier strategy firms are looking for innovative ways to keep talent. We’ve had a number of very interesting discussions around how consulting can become more flexible – this is to counteract losing great talent as a result of the lifestyle. Whether the 3-day working weeks or 7 months on 5 months off type models have more traction, will be interesting to see.
- Freelancer pools. We’ve seen the strategy firms look to introduce “surge capacity”. At Movemeon we are currently working with 7 strategy firms to help them build “freelance pools”. These are pools of strategy consulting alumni, who are now freelance. This not only allows these firms to better manage utilization, but it also allows them to provide more flexible models of delivery to clients (i.e., longer-term; lower touch). This has traditionally been very hard to offer unless you have the scale of the Big 4.
CUSP OF DISRUPTION – WHAT DOES THE FUTURE FOR STRATEGY CONSULTANCIES HOLD?
Consultancies grew rapidly over the past two decades. As a result, the share of work that is classic strategy has been steadily decreasing and is now about 20%, down from 60% to 70% some 30 years ago, according to Tom Rodenhauser, the managing director of advisory services at Kennedy Consulting Research & Advisory (Consulting on Cusp of Disruption, HBR). If strategy consultancies are going to keep their current scale, they need to innovate to keep this non “classic-strategy” periphery.
Consulting has been on the cusp of disruption for two years now. Whilst there are clearly changes afoot, we think this is just the beginning. We expect to see further hollowing of the centre, with more specialized firms/ freelancers and continued consolidation of larger firms. We are also expecting freelance to continue its growth, and will increasingly take the more peripheral work from the larger consultancies.
However, for us, the most important change that needs to happen is more flexibility in delivery. Clients needs have changed. Whilst steps are being made to offer more than just traditional consulting teams – there needs to be more innovation. Consulting needs to move away from smart people helping to solve problems and embrace more technology – the ability to provide products for their clients to provide them with solutions to their problems.
Strategy consultancies can keep the “periphery” (non-classic strategy work) they have grown over the past few decades, by providing “products” that serve their clients over the long-term. Strategic advice can then take the form of shorter projects focused on solving particularly thorny issues. Given the exciting innovation and number of startups in the space, expect some acquisitions in the not too far future. Consultancies will start to see innovative products not only as high-margin delivery lines but as critical to continuing to provide their high-end advice.
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