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  The intellectual high ground of management consulting or ‘thought leadership’ has traditionally been held by the strategy firms.
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But is this still the case in today’s highly fragmented and dynamic consulting market, where the competition for white space is fierce?

Do strategy firms still lead the thinking?

The world’s biggest 40 consulting firms have around 3,500 reports, articles, white papers and books on their websites which can be considered as thought leadership. Around a third of the bona fide material addresses strategy-related issues – studies of new or emerging markets, planning tools, etc – and another third focuses on more operational topics such as business process efficiency, technology, procurement and outsourcing. The remainder is made up from a whole host of topics, from leadership to cost control.

Strategy firms usually take a generic approach to thought leadership, focussing on emerging issues and their widespread application rather than applying them to specific sectors. They tend to be ‘experimenters’ and ‘architects’ of new ideas and concepts rather than ‘builders’ and ‘fixers’ who tailor their material to the particular needs of sectors. The typical profile of a strategy firm’s thought leadership consists of economic and market studies and thinking on strategy formulation. Whilst the smaller firms are often better at finding ways to make their material topical and relevant for their audience, they often lack the resources for the underlying research required to product enduring thought leadership.

McKinsey produces by far the most material with 9 per cent of the thought leadership market – its nearest strategy competitor is PA Consulting Group with 5 per cent. Booz Allen Hamilton scores highest overall when it comes to distinctive, opinionated and interesting thought leadership, much of which appears in its magazine, strategy+business. McKinsey has long been one of the most substantial investors in thought leadership in the consulting sector, as even a cursory glance at the McKinsey Quarterly will testify. Its output continues to be enviably well-researched, however, Bain leads the field in terms of ‘appeal’ with an ability to pick topical issues and find topical messages in more familiar material. It is an approach unquestionably helped by the way Bain publishes its material. While almost 90 per cent of consulting thought leadership is self-published, Bain prefers to place articles and expert opinions into magazines and newspapers.

Bain, Boston Consulting Group and AT Kearney are all good at finding ways to make their material topical, accessible and relevant to their intended audience but are less concerned with creating a link in their readers’ minds between the ideas discussed and potential consulting opportunities. Others such as McKinsey place great store on pulling together in-depth and potentially long-lasting research to support their suppositions.

In terms of both quantity and quality of material, the strategy houses face competition on a number of fronts. Accenture produces the same volume of thought leadership as McKinsey, and is followed by PricewaterhouseCoopers, IBM and PA each with 5 per cent. In terms of quality, the Big Four audit firms have the potential to challenge the strategy firms as they strengthen their ‘trusted advisor’ role with clients.

The strategy firms certainly can’t afford to be complacent. In a crowded market it’s important to be a thought leader rather than a thought follower – to find the topics or angles that others haven’t considered – the white space.

This assessment of thought leadership contributions is based on Fiona Czerniawska’s new report White Space, the findings of which will form a key part of Fiona’s forthcoming seminar Using thought leadership to generate £millions in extra client fees.
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