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Every four years, the Olympic Games offer the spectacle of the world’s nations going head to head in a titanic contest for the most prestigious honours in sport: not just the podium positions but also the bragging rights afforded by topping the medals table.

As in sport, so in consulting, except in one important regard. Consulting, unlike the Olympics, is about the winning, not the taking part. So which is the best consultancy in the UK, based on the views of peers and clients?

For the UK’s Leading Management Consultants 2018, Statista, the research and data provider, sorted recommendations into three categories. Six stars were awarded to firms “very frequently recommended” in a consulting service or sector, five for “frequently recommended” and four for “recommended”. Let us call these the gold, silver and bronze “medals” in each “event”. Deloitte, KPMG and McKinsey top the table by total number of medals — they each won star ratings in 29 sectors and services, the maximum.

This version of the table tells a familiar story: there is a gap between the largest, universal consultancies and the rest. Recommendations were made in at least 21 of the categories for the Big Four accountancy firms (Deloitte, KPMG, PwC and EY), the Big Three traditional strategy consultancies (McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and Bain) and Accenture.

But this is only one way of arranging a medals table. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, for instance, Team GB won fewer medals overall than China, but beat China in the ranking by number of gold medals.

If one cuts the consulting medal tally in a similar way, it reveals a different picture: Accenture comes top. Despite gaining no medal ratings in two categories, it achieved 18 six-star ratings overall, against KPMG’s 17, Deloitte’s 12 and McKinsey’s 11. This table also elevates IBM to equal fifth with PwC, for its nine “golds”.

There is more to this than meets the eye. The Management Consultancies Association — a trade body whose members include Deloitte, KPMG and PwC — pointed out in its recent analysis of UK industry data that in 2016, the largest firms grew by 4 per cent on average. Medium-sized firms did better, growing by 6 per cent, and specialists’ growth exceeded 20 per cent.

A similar story is told by our ranking. On overall medal tally, there is a notable gap between Bain (which garnered 21 six-, five- or four-star ratings) and the next highest groups, IBM (14) and AT Kearney and PA Consulting (13 each).

But the alternative view shows it is possible for specialists to win gold in single events. For example, Atkins Global topped the podium in the construction and infrastructure sector. OC&C was among the gold medallists in consumer goods and retail, and BAE destroyed all-comers in defence. Hay Group, part of Korn Ferry, the executive search firm, since 2015, wins gold in its specialist area of people and performance.

These companies join Oliver Wyman, Baringa and Simon-Kucher in a cluster of seven consultancies that won the top ranking in one sector or service. In this analysis of the ranking, they jump above AT Kearney and PA, which achieved no six-star ratings.

Some distinct subsidiaries of the biggest companies are winning recommendations, often by specialising, for example QuantumBlack, McKinsey’s data analytics arm.

If anything, the ranking may overstate the importance of the bigger groups, whose balance sheets buy a lot of name recognition.

What an at-a-glance analysis of the table does suggest is that trying to be all things to all clients is probably futile unless you are one of the largest consultancies. On the other hand, a strategy of smart specialisation could pay off. After all, if you are a small nation that is home to the world’s best weightlifters, why try to beat the USA in the track and field events?

Most rankings*
Deloitte Consulting29
KPMG Advisory29
McKinsey & Company29
PwC Consulting28
Accenture27
EY Advisory Services26
BCG — The Boston Consulting Group22
Bain & Company21
IBM Global Business Services14
AT Kearney13
PA Consulting Group13

* Appearances in 29 rankings

Top rated*GoldSilverBronze
Accenture1872
KPMG Advisory17111
Deloitte Consulting12143
McKinsey & Company11144
IBM Global Business Services941
PwC Consulting9154
BCG — The Boston Consulting Group3127
Bain & Company2910
EY Advisory Services2204
Atkins Global164
BAE Systems Applied Intelligence131
Baringa Partners109
Hay Group142
OC&C Strategy Consultants105
Oliver Wyman128
Simon-Kucher & Partners102

* Gold = very frequently recommended; silver = frequently recommended; bronze = recommended

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