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McKinsey, BCG, and Bain (MBB) are very different companies. But they have similarities, too. All three are equally prestigious management and strategy consulting companies with global standards and integrated approaches to solving their clients’ issues.
There is probably no consulting aspirant who doesn’t wish to work for one of the “Big Three.”
“MBB” have a similar type of clients and provide similar services. The salaries and work of their employees are largely similar, too. So also the working lives/hours of their employees.
Other similarities include their wealth of Fortune 500 clients, intense training and development programs for employees, and excellent exit opportunities.
Now, for the differences. We may sneak in one or two other similarities, too, on the way.
McKinsey is the biggest among the three Big 3s. Founded by former professor of accounting at the University of Chicago James O. McKinsey in 1926, it is headquartered in New York. It has 127 offices around the world and 27,000 employees, 9,000 of them consultants. Its annual revenue in 2018 was over $10 billion.
The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) is the second biggest. Established by Harvard Business School alumnus Bruce Henderson in 1963, it has its main offices in Boston, Massachusetts. BCG’s 18,500 employees, including 7,000 consultants, work from its over 90 offices around the globe. Its annual revenue in 2018 was $7.5 billion.
Bain, the smallest of the Big 3, was set up in 1973 by BCG colleagues William W. Bain Jr. and Patrick F. Graham. It also has its headquarters in Boston and has 10,500 employees, including 4,000 consultants. Bain’s 2019 annual revenue was $4.5 billion.
McKinsey has established a stronger presence in emerging markets such as Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, though all three are equally strong in Northern America and Europe, with BCG having an edge in parts of Germany.
McKinsey, which has a hoarier vintage, has always been the undisputed market leader, but Bain, the youngest of the three, has consistently made its mark with its market differentiation and risk-taking talent. Bain, meanwhile, comes across as more seasoned by balancing accumulated expertise and bold creativity.
McKinsey’s education and technology practices are much stronger than those of BCG or Bain. But in private equity, Bain offers more.
MBB have strong resources and expertise in specific areas, and candidates with different backgrounds usually have a better chance at one of them over the other consulting firms.
MBB start their recruitment cycle in the fall, targeting MBAs and undergrads at top schools, for their new batch of recruits for the next fall.
It is nearly impossible for a consulting aspirant to try to break into any of these three firms during their off cycle.
This is particularly so with BCG and Bain, as their intake is smaller than McKinsey’s.
McKinsey is the most open among the three to taking in someone without an MBA, and Bain the least. A consulting aspirant with a law or medical or another advanced degree better knock on McKinsey’s doors first.
McKinsey looks for personal impact, entrepreneurial drive, problem-solving skills, and leadership qualities in its candidates. The firm conducts three types of interviews—experience interview, problem-solving interview, and expertise interview.
McKinsey differentiates itself from its two big rivals in its problem-solving test (PST), conducted either in person or online, which is used to pare down the applicants pool. For candidates for consultant positions, it is a multiple-choice test of 26 questions to test for analytical skills. It also uses a pressure test to find out whether a candidate can handle stress.
Read: How I got into McKinsey
BCG’s interview process for consulting positions depends on the location. Two rounds of interviews are conducted. The interviews have three parts: one finds out about the candidate’s background and fit, leadership skills, and personal impact; the second involves case-study interviews to evaluate the candidate’s strategic skills, thinking process, and ability to make a strong case; and the third answers the candidate’s questions, and assesses communication and listening skills, intellectual curiosity, and creative thinking.
Bain also looks to assessing problem-solving skills, leadership skills, results delivery in previous positions, and passion and entrepreneurial drive. Besides experience interview and case interview, Bain also conducts an in-depth written case interview, for which the candidate is given some time to prepare.
How does the selection process vary between these three firms? The difference in the selection process is mainly in the type of case interviews that the firms conduct for job applicants.
While McKinsey prefers an interviewer-led approach, BCG and Bain take a candidate-led approach (see our blog: How to prepare for case interviews).
Although McKinsey is said to be going for the interviewer-led approach, this may be only for the earlier rounds, and generally, the more senior the interviewer, the less the proportion of interviewer-led interviews.
But these format preferences are based on publicly shared information. Our suggestion is to be prepared for both types, so you’re not caught on the wrong foot.
McKinsey sets great store by its fit interviews, two or three of which candidates may face, and which tend to be more intense that similar interviews at BCG and Bain. Bain also conducts a pressure test to bring the candidate’s integrity under its microscope. It tries to find out whether the candidate really believes in what she is saying.
BCG has its own device, conducting interviews with curve-ball questions (for example, “what do you think of the décor in this office?” or “How do you plan a birthday party for a colleague?”) to assess whether a candidate is smart and quick and is able to provide usable solutions to problems.
If you consider salaries for the same positions in the same big city across the Big 3, there may not be substantial differences at all.
Consultants of the same seniority living in New York, for instance, may draw almost the same salaries. However, differences in salaries are usually seen between consultants in the same firm working in different cities and those at different levels.
But McKinsey sets the rule for a season and the other two follow—McKinsey can’t afford to lag behind, as their prime recruitment targets, from HBS MBA class topper to Rhodes scholar, are also hounded by other top firms.
An undergrad may earn $85,000 base salary and an MBA full-timer $165,000. Add signing bonus, relocation allowance, retirement benefits, and even profit-sharing (in some countries) along with health insurance and relocation benefits. Consulting salary grows at 5 percent annually on average.
Exit opportunities are numerous for MBB alumni, including top leadership positions such as CEO or vice president at Fortune 500 companies. They will also have the confidence to launch and ensure the success of a new business venture.
|Undergrad, grad, new consultants
Up to $15,000
Signing bonus: $5,000
Up to $16,800
Up to $15,300
Up to £6,000
Up to £3,000
|MBAs & experienced
PB: Up to $35,000
Up to $45,000
Up to $41,250
PB: Up to £20,000
Up to £25,000
Up to £24,000
|Project leaders &
PB: Up to $35,000
Up to $44,100
Up to $37,000
PB: £21,000 (average)
Up to £30,000
Up to £47,000
PB: Up to A$47,000
Up to A$53,000
Up to A$73,000
PB: Up to $252,000-300,000
Up to $300,000
Source: mconsultingprep.com. Note: Estimated salaries based on field reports by the source website. “Performance bonus” abbreviated as “PB”; “signing bonus” abbreviated as “SB.”
Significant organizational and operational culture differences exist among the Big 3, though there are some similarities, too. All three insist on equally demanding work ethos from their employees.
In all three, consultants are each allotted one project at a time, for better focus, and they can expect to travel at least four days a week for most of their tenures and to work long hours when they are their home office.
Additionally, McKinsey consultants, more than those of the other two firms, are likely to find themselves part of the staff at offices of client organizations around the world.
McKinsey consultants are more likely to have to travel more frequently: many of them visit about eight countries during their tenure, according to one estimate.
At Bain, consultants are more likely to be stationed in one office, though they may get a chance to work abroad at a client’s office.
BCG consultants are mainly based locally, though because of the firm’s global reach they may travel more than Bain counterparts.
To mention a similarity, MBB consultants work with mostly C-level executives, and this is why these firms recruit candidates from top schools to maintain high standards of professionalism and sophistication. Their clients include Fortune 50, Fortune 100, Fortune 500 companies, private equities, and hedge funds, and may charge them $500,000 for a team of six for six months.
Operationally, the fuddy-duddy in the pack is certainly McKinsey, with its traditional, formal, and hierarchical approaches. Even the consultants’ conduct and style of attire appear to reflect this. In implementing the “McKinsey way” in effectively solving problems, they often seem to project an image of smart efficiency rather than an informal disposition.
At the other end, Bain has a more friendly office atmosphere, which one writer describes as “fratty.” Teamwork is the office theme, and “work hard, party hard” seems to be the slogan, and it’s anyone’s guess which of the firms new, young appointees would prefer to work for.
In the middle, BCG is flatter and thrives on camaraderie and a collaborative work style among its consultants. Teamwork is a big thing at BCG, too, but individual contributions are also valued. When it comes to getting a hang of new trends in the economy, BCG comes out on top.
As the Big 3 consultants come from the top business schools, their offices tend to have a certain similar feel and look, all said. But the culture of each of the three firms, which aspire to adopt and maintain global standards, may vary depending on the location of an office and the employees working there. The atmosphere in a big office in a European capital may vary from that in a smaller office located in a city in a developing country.
McKinsey alumni are believed to have a greater standing in the corporate world than those of BCG or Bain at any future job that you set your eyes on, according to some in the industry. They are also said to have a networking advantage, because of the firm’s global spread but also because of its alumni association activity. BCG has the next best network, but the quality of relationship between Bain alums is probably the best among the three firms.
McKinsey Digital is a separate group within the larger McKinsey that caters to the digital requirements of its customers and helps them integrate technology into their operations effectively.
Whether the client is a traditional company that has not used digital technology before, or a company that is undergoing a digital transformation, McKinsey Digital, a horizontal practice group that serves all industry verticals, offers solutions.
An example of a typical project that McKinsey Digital would take up: suppose a garment-chain client had, a few years ago, retained McKinsey for ideas to improve its business and now approaches the digital group to review its digital forays.
The group would examine how the company carries on its marketing campaign through email and SMS and suggest steps to improve its digital marketing outreach and launch a more effective app, for example.
McKinsey Digital has engineers, product managers, and data scientists on its staff who can provide the infrastructure and technology to implement recommendations made by McKinsey consultants.
McKinsey Digital’s support helps client companies survive in the new world and do better in a technology-intensive market and derive its full potential.
The launch of the digital group makes McKinsey’s services even more important than before and signals a step forward for the firm, too, as it can provide not only strategic recommendations but implement them in the digital era.
The McKinsey Knowledge Network comprises 2,000 knowledge professionals working at the company’s Knowledge Centers. Teaming up with consultants to transform client organizations, the knowledge professionals come up with ideas for new business engagements, build new data banks, and create proprietary assets.
Knowledge Centers provide knowledge management, cutting-edge expertise and research, custom analytics, and diagnostics and benchmarking.
The Knowledge Network deploys researchers, analysts, economists, and even historians and meteorologists. They come from different backgrounds other than traditional business graduates and are a tight-knit and outgoing group that finds time for social interactions.
The basic difference between MBB and the Big 4 (Deloitte, E&Y, PwC, and KPMG) is that while MBB provide strategic management consulting, the Big 4 focus on accounting.
However, while the Big 4’s methodology involves giving specific, formulaic solutions, examining each client problem individually, MBB detect problems, find out the best solutions to address them, and then provide customized solutions for their clients as a whole.
MBB consultants usually have more flexibility and get a chance to be creative to identify the client’s problems.
At MBB, consultants get to work with top executives on a daily basis, while at the Big 4, the most frequent interactions are with middle-management representatives of clients, and meetings with the top bosses are rare and confined to important presentations.
Moreover, MBB allow a lot of independence, with the expectation that the consultant would be able handle a project, while at the Big 4, there could be supervision, with a manager making suggestions and providing support.
MBB may be where the big money is, but the Big 4 firms are where some work/life balance exists – only in relative terms though. MBB are a much tougher taskmaster than the Big 4 for consultants, and they work long hours, which affects their family and social relationships. The Big 4 treat their clients much more softly, compared with MBB.
If one takes into account only the annual salary, MBB do a little better. But there is no significant difference with the Big 4 when you calculate the per-hour wage, because of the shorter hours at the latter.
Of course, because MBB have bigger budgets for everything, they have better perks, more lavish company events, and more money for travel. But the choice of MBB or Big 4 for job aspirants should be influenced by individual skillset, interests, and personality type.
At McKinsey, an undergrad is given the job title of “business analyst.” At BCG, an undergrad is an “associate,” and at Bain an “associate consultant.”
An MBA hired at McKinsey is an “associate”, and at Bain and BCG, a “consultant.”
Some other titles are as follows.
|Undergrad||Business analyst||Associate||Associate consultant|
|Intermediate (2-4 years)||Junior associate||Consultant||Senior associate consultant|
|Senior (4-6 years)||Associate||Consultant||Consultant|
|Middle management||Engagement manager||Project leader||Case team leader|
|Upper management||Associate principal||Principal||Principal|
At the Big 4, the entry level (0-2 years) designations at all four firms is analyst, though, at Deloitte, it can also be associate. Some other titles are as follows.
|Entry level (0-2 years)||Analyst / Associate||Analyst||Analyst||Analyst|
|Intermediate (2-4 years)||Consultant||Senior associate||Associate||Associate|
|Senior (4-6 years)||Senior consultant||Senior consultant||Senior consultant||Senior associate|
|Middle management||Manager||Manager||Manager||Manager / Senior manager|
|Upper management||Associate Director (formerly Senior Manager)||Senior manager||Director||Director|