McKinsey versus Marakon: The Battle Between Global Management Consulting Firms and Boutiques

Differences between big consulting firms and boutique consulting firms

This is an important issue when recruiting for a business consulting job. In finance, most people think you must work for the biggest – the Goldman-Sachs-or-bust mentality. And while the big management consulting firms (like McKinsey and Bain) get the lions share of media attention, there are many successful and well-respected boutique consulting firms (like Katzenbach Partners, LEK, and Marakon) that I would recommend prospective applicants consider.

So what are the differences between the two? First, I’ll start with the similarities:

1) Consulting travel will usually be a component 2) You’ll work in teams, interacting closely with clients 3) As an analyst/associate/consultant, your focus will be on data gathering, analysis, and presentation. In plain English, this means you’ll receive lots of data from your client, do calculations in Excel, combine that with thorough Internet research and some interviews, and put it into slides to share at meetings

But the differences are very important:

1) While the fundamentals of your work will be the same, the application of that work can vary. Boutique companies like Kurt Salmon typically focus on narrower questions and in fewer industries. At a Big 3 consulting firm (Bain, BCG, McKinsey) you receive exposure to different industries and functions (eg, strategy, operations, organization). In boutiques your exposure is more narrow – at Kurt Salmon, your primary focus would be on retail and consumer goods companies. This is both a pro (you start building expertise) and a con (what if you decide the retail sector is not for you?).

But again, the day-to-day will look very similar. The difference is in the longer-term.

2) As for travel – it depends. Some boutiques do a lot of traveling if they have an industry focus (Kurt Salmon is a well-regarded expert in the retail/consumer goods space, with clients spread throughout the US and internationally). But other boutiques have a more local focus (eg, Slalom Consulting) and thus you may travel very little – most of your work would be with area clients with whom your firm has developed a lasting relationship

3) While you’re guaranteed to work in teams and with clients, both the types of team members, types of clients and nature of interaction could be different. Boutiques have less coverage for clients overall, which could mean you’ll see significantly more client interaction from an early stage, and with more senior members (this is the norm – but I have heard of smaller consulting firms like ATKearney with enormous teams at the client, so it can vary). Your teams will usually be smaller, often with you and maybe one other person as the only real day-to-day presence at your clients. Each of these comes with its own set of pros and cons.

Further reading: Interview with an ATKearney Shanghai consultant

4) Culture can be vastly different

I use the example of a small liberal arts college (Brown) vs a large, public institution (UCLA).

Brown offers greater personalization and support, everyone knows your name, you’re a big fish in a small pond. At UCLA, its harder to standout. The support network is not personalized and easily accessible. While there are more opportunities, it’s up to you to seize them. You’re a small fish in a big pond, but the upside can be higher.

The analogy also applies to large city offices versus satellite/smaller city offices (for example, Bain’s San Francisco office versus their satellite offices in Texas. A great discussion of consulting office selection can be found in my interview with Marquis)

5) Future jobs/exit options. In particular I need to put a disclaimer here, because your situation is largely within your control and the actual situations vary widely. But when we discuss the ACCESS that you have to exit opportunities across industries and job functions, larger firms (like Boston Consulting Group) are the clear winner. Much larger alumni networks, more internally shared recruiting emails and advice, greater brand recognition, the list goes on. Boutiques, given their strong reputation in particular niches, offer plenty of opportunities in the same space – but are distinctly behind in offering opportunities to enter unrelated career paths. These corporate paths usually include (and this is not counting the many who enter graduate school):

  • Finance – investment banking, private equity, hedge funds, investment management – consulting-friendly private equity firms and investment funds are the norm here
  • Corporate/Fortune 500 – roles range from corporate strategy to product management to marketing and business development
  • More consulting – either internally at your current firm in a new position, or at a new firm, new country, etc
  • Startups – probably the least frequent choice

    Further reading: Part 1 of a series on management consulting exit options

    Also, as a note for prospective summer interns – many boutique firms do not offer consulting summer internships in the U.S. This practice is more common internationally. However, summer internship season can offer a great opportunity to see how the Big 3 management consulting firms/Big 4 accounting/one-stop-shop firms operate from the inside. While recruiting is competitive, the opportunity is golden if you get it

    We offer resume editing and interview prep. Through one-on-one sessions, we’ll help you stand out from 1000′s of other applicants and land consulting jobs now!

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    • Abhi

      Hi,

      Keep up the good work! Certainly good to learn more about Management Consulting firms as I embark on the “What next?” journey.

      I work for a One-Stop-Shop as you term it.

      Thanks!

      Abhi

    • kgao

      Thanks Abhi – if you don’t mind sharing, where do you work? Would be interested in getting your perspectives. If you don’t feel comfortable posting publicly but are willing to discuss with me privately, feel free to email me

      Merry xmas!

    • UoWGrad

      Another consultant from a one stop shop here. Stumbled across this website from M&I’s and I have already spent a few hours browsing through it. Great read as I figure out my way forward.

      KGao, by any chance, is there a chronological listing of your posts as they appear on the website. I haven’t found one. If such a listing existed, I’d surely want to go back and go through the posts in a chronological order.

      Cheers

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    • idk

      Uhh…Brown isn’t a liberal arts college…it’s a University…you might wanna replace it with something like Amherst (which actually is a liberal arts college) or Williams or Pomona.

    • Micah

      Hey, just wanted to throw in my two cents and say that this post was really helpful and illuminative. I’d like to know more about the transition from boutique firms to the larger firms, and whether this is a feasible occurrence.

      Thanks!

      ~Micah

    • Micah

      Edit: Changed e-mail. And added update notification.

    • peacerenity

      @idk

      Brown may not technically be a liberal arts college, but in size it is closer to one (it has about 6,000 undergrads) than it is to your average big public school.

    • Michelle

      Great article! You’re clearly very well-informed….. except about the colleges. Brown has over 6,000 undergrads, your typical liberal arts school has 1-2,000 at most. No way Brown is a liberal arts school or fits into your “small pond” metaphor :/

    • Basilio

      Hi am now finishing my Masters in Design Management and am looking for Internships in Innovation Boutique consultancies, dont now if you have some knowledge of some in europe or EEUU.
      I see my profile as a Designer and Manager is not an MBA but I have high skills in Strategy planning and Innovation.

      Some Advice ????

    • http://managementconsulted.com Kevin

      Thanks for pointing that out, Michelle. As you can clearly tell, I am no expert on the East Coast liberal arts scene :)

    • http://managementconsulted.com Kevin

      Hi Basilio, unfortunately I don’t know enough about European boutique consultancies to be very useful to you here, but keep me posted on your job search if you learn something valuable to share with readers.

    • Ash

      Hi Kevin
      Firstly, this is a fantastic website! Has given me lots of good insight which I was looking for. My goal is to get into management consulting with a leading strategy firm in Australia. Currently here is where I’m at and where I see myself going…
      I’m 25 this year. Graduated in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts (Social Science, Public Relations) – 90%/A/Distinction grade. Worked 2006-2010 as a Trade Commissioner Assistant for a foreign government. Taking 2010-2012 out to live in London and experience Europe. 2013 and 2014 will be spent studying again – Master of International Business and Master of Commerce (major Finance). 2015 will be the year I hopefully enter the profession via a grad program (I’ll be 29 when I graduate, turning 30 that year).
      What are your thoughts around this? Do you have any suggestions or ideas for me? I know I will have to network and get involved with extra curricular activities at university, but any other thoughts and ideas would be really helpful.
      Thanks in advance.
      Ash

    • Nicole

      Hi Kevin,

      What do you think about large firms other than Bain, BCG, or McKinsey compared to smaller firms? For example, what are the main pros and cons to working at a firm like LEK or Marakon, as opposed to Deloitte Strategy & Operations?

      Nicole

    • http://twitter.com/jaimefitzgerald Jaime Fitzgerald

      While small firms don’t bring the same scale, they do bring more agility, specialization, and often, the entrepreneurial mindset needed to solve problems with more creativity and a less formulaic approach.

      Depending on the needs and goals of a project, small firms can add significant value for clients. By specializing and doing a few things unusually well, they earn remarkable loyalty.

      Jaime Fitzgerald, Founder and President of
      Fitzgerald Analytics: A boutique consulting company that is one of the Best Small Firms according to Consulting Magazine’s research and analysis.

    • Andrew

      Great article! On this theme, I just got a summer internship offer from Analysis Group. At the same time, I am waiting to hear back from McKinsey. I had what I think was a second and final round interview in office with McK, but I know they sometimes want to do additional interviews after those.

      Analysis Group wants me to decide sooner rather then later, and I would be excited to work there, but I don’t want to pass up McK if I could get that. Any advice on how to decide? Also, any info about Analysis Group, or how to hurry McK along would be great!

    • AnonymousTip

      So when you guys compare UCLA to Brown, you do mean Brown University right? The Ivy League school (with many graduate programs, not a liberal arts school…) with 6000 people, whose biggest employers of the graduating class regularly includes all of the MBBs, and with a college acceptance rate half that of UCLA? Besides the fact that Brown isn’t a liberal arts college (and everyone certainly doesn’t know your name), the example of ‘big fish in a small pond’ doesn’t really make sense, because frankly, any ‘big fish’ at Brown are sure to be just as big, if not bigger, if placed into UCLA.

    • Wakeupcall

      Sounds like someone wait to Harvard-Wait-List University …

    • namo

      Hi Andrew- I just wanted to follow up with you regarding what happened eventually. Did you take up Analysis?

    • AdHominem

      *went
      and by your logic, that’s Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, UChicago, wait might as well just add ALL universities mwah

    • Exit60

      You are joking right?
      This is not small vs big it is giant (McKinsey) vs big (Marakon sub of Charles River Associates). They are both global and ruthless.

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    • KM

      What about MBA admissions? Coming from a boutique consulting firm, does one still have a good chance at a top business school?

    • zerminz

      hi, does your major in college matter for ib/management consulting job recruiting? i go to cornell and am majoring in industrial and labor relations(ilr). ilr is seen more as a prelaw major, but im interested more in business (while open to law) and choose the major to have more flexibility. if i have a high gpa and take biz and econ classes, do i have a good shot? would it be a good idea to minor in business, econ, and/or information science with this? also, do you have any idea of the reputation of the ilr school at cornell? or are universities looked at as a single unit, not by colleges within universities? thanks in advance.

    • jennyrae

      Zerminz,
      You’ve included so many good questions. We are going to answer this in an upcoming post. Thanks for commenting.

    • really

      “this is the norm – but I have heard of smaller consulting firms like ATKearney…” A smaller firm like ATK with only 2k consultants. That is a huge firm!

    • jennyrae

      That is contingent upon so many factors including your test scores, undergraduate experience, leadership, achievements, recommendation letters and more. Do your research on each program you’re interested in and make yourself known to admissions just like you would network for a job. Be sure to ask a lot of questions, and study hard for any entrance examinations. Good luck!

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    • Todd81

      Respectfully, Brown is a research university. Next time you want to use that analogy, instead of Brown maybe consider Williams, or Pomona College. Something to think about.

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