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What is the difference between McK, BCG and Bain – so called “MBB” firms?

Anonymous A

Hello guys, I just started my preparation for my McKinsey and Bain interviews and was curious to know what are the main points of difference between these firms. From different online sources, I am getting different ideas. In short, I understand that there’s no one “Best” firm, but that it depends on which office you’re in and what your personal preferences are.

Do you agree with this assessment? Can anyone help pinpoint the exact differences between the firms? How do I decide which one is the best fit for me? I would love it if the experts who have worked at the MBB firms could share their experiences.

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Currently non-active expert
Expert
replied on 05/24/2016

For perspective, I worked 5.5 years at BCG in Germany and Japan, and did projects all over the globe. I have multiple friends at both McK and Bain. The following are my personal views, and your statement "from different online sources, I am getting different ideas" also holds in "real life" :)

Important:

(1) The differences between all three firms (and even other top managment consultancies) are negligible compared to non-consulting firms/jobs.

(2) All three firms have grown so much, they compete on all levels and no longer specialize in certain topics or industries. Basically, if one of the firms pitch for a certain project, the others could do it equally well.

On to the differences:

- In Europe, there is still a difference between McK/BCG and Bain, which is a bit smaller. So, while any competitive pitch where McK is invited also has BCG pitching (and vice versa), Bain is not always present.

- McK tends to have a more top-down, slightly harsher approach (maybe rooted from operations/cost cutting experience). BCG has a bit more cooperative approach, building support bottom-up together with the client's organization/middle management. Bain is somewhere in the middle.

- I found the smartest/most intelligent people to be at McK, intellectually a tiny notch above the other firms. BCG I found to be a bit more creative/out of the box.

Again, all of this is highly subjective. If you receive an offer from any of the firms, congratulations, that's amazing! :) If you end up getting more than one offer, I would choose the one which feels the best to you personally. I loved BCG, but one of my friends did not like the atmosphere and they somehow didn't connect -- he is now super successful and happy at Bain. During the interview process, you get to know 5-10 consultants over 2 rounds in a professional context. And keep in mind -- they don't just interview, but also try to make a good impression on you! The interview process is actually quite revealing about how working there would be, so going with your gut feel is probably the best way to go.

Good luck and all the best!

Anonymous B replied on 05/25/2016

I prepared for consulting interviews and had offers from all 3 in the India office. After a lot of research and brainstorming, I chose to join Bain. The following are the main conclusions of my research:

1. In terms of type of work, type of people, exit opportunities, working hours, pay, etc. – most important parameters, i.e., they are the same or largely similar.

2. The only important thing that the firms use as a differentiating feature is culture – and while the culture at all consulting firms is largely similar when compared to another industry (say, FMCG or tech), there are some subtle differences between the firms:

  • McKinsey has a clear “I’m-the-best” air about themselves. Most hires have great grades and extra-curricular achievements. I got the impression that McKinsey considers itself obviously the best among consulting firms. The people I was in touch with at McKinsey were really surprised when I chose Bain over McK, while my BCG and Bain contacts were much more respectful of the other firms.
  • BCG is growing really fast in India but I heard from many (including those at BCG) that they have a much higher attrition rate than the other two firms. I really liked the people at BCG but the general perception of BCG consultants being highly overworked (even by consulting standards) caused them to lose some points.
  • My interaction with Bain was super positive and they refrained from talking negatively about other firms. I liked the people, and in addition heard a lot of good things about Bain culture from my friends - that everyone felt like they worked with friends, and it was supportive and “up-or-out” was very muted, almost non-existent at Bain (unlike other firms).

Reiterating, the differences between firms are marginal and each has something going for it – McK has arguably the most recognizable brand globally, BCG is growing fast and has great people, and Bain has a supportive and collaborative culture. These things of course vary from office to office – this is just my perception (after weeks of research) of the India offices of these firms. In summary, you should treat the firms as more or less equal and choose the one whose people you like the best. This would depend on the office and (if applicable) team you would be working for.

All the best in making the choice!

Anonymous replied on 05/31/2017

I've summered at one and joined another of the MBB, had final rounds with the last one. From my experience, there are actually a few differences between the firms.

The firms all work on top priority issues for great clients, but I think the types of cases they tackle is different. McKinsey works for many of the F500. Huge conglomerates where organizational reform is often important, this is one of their strongholds. BCG tends to do loads of work on Post Merger Integration (PMI), Project Management Office (PMO) and Transformations. This is usually about designing ways business units within a company should look like and after that tracking if the changes are actually commited to. Bain has many of the world's leading private equity firms as clients rather than the large, slower industrial enterprises. Those seem to be more dynamic and fast-paced as they're more nimble. Also, people in private equity, are all extremely bright and results oriented. This makes for perhaps a steeper learning curve than normally, but also for a greater learning potential it seems.

In terms of exits, a large proportion of McKinsey and BCG consultants opt for Head of Strategy roles, whereas the Bain consultants seem disproportionately to go for entrepreneurship or private equity. All open the doors to every role though, so this might be more in the nature of the people working at the respective companies than a result of exit opportunities.

In terms of culture, McKinsey is the most buttoned-up and formal, but also has as great trait that you have an Obligation to Dissent. This basically means you need to speak your mind if you don't agree with others. BCG consultants seem to have the least influence on their lifestyle and working hours. They're all very nice and humble people though, but not the centre of a party usually. Bain seems to control the work-life balance of their employees generally well, but their private equity practice works without a doubt the most hours of any consulting group. They are usually characterized as the most social of the three.

In terms of how their business is doing, there isn't much difference and this will largely be location dependent. McKinsey seems to have an overall strong presence, with an extra strong presence in Germany, China and India. BCG is strong in Germany but struggles in Asia, and their US business has slowed at the moment. Bain is strong in the UK, France the US and Asia, but is behind in the Middle East and behind but catching up in size in Germany and Switzerland.

(edited)

Mitchell
Expert
replied on 01/04/2018
BCG Consultant |Consulting Case Coach at London Business School

For disclosure, I'm a BCG consultant and so my opinion here is subjective.

If you manage to receive an offer from more than one out of McKinsey, BCG and Bain, congratulations! You're in an enviable position. They are all excellent firms with an incredible reputation.

In my opinion, the differences are slight and are likely to vary most with the culture of the particular country rather than firm. If you have to make a choice, my advice is to meet as many people from those firms as possible and make an opinion based on the type of people you have met. You will spend a long time working alongside them, and I've found the biggest predictor of happiness on a project is the people you work with, not the client, topic or industry. it's important that you get along with, and are motivated by your colleagues.

However, here are a few thoughts:

In terms of approach to work, it is essentially the same top-down hypothesis-driven method.

Unlike other industries (such as investment banking), it is very rare for consultants to move between firms. Hence the difficulty in gaining a true comparison beyond the stereotypes presented in forums such as this one. I have a friend (junior) that moved from McKinsey to BCG, and found that McKinsey had a more competitive culture, whereas BCG was more cooperative amongst peers, and also with clients. I have worked with another freelance consultant that works with both McKinsey and BCG who has supported this view. Keep in mind, this is only two data points.

McKinsey, BCG and Bain all work with similar types of clients. However, in different geographies, firms may do more work in one industry than others. But the biggest driver of the type of work is driven more by the economy of the particular country rather than firms. A firm is more likely to do oil and gas projects in Northern Europe, Canada or Brazil than in other locations. This will change with economic and industry cycles. For example, in Australia, mining was significant during a boom in the late 2000s, and declined post-GFC. Some differences do occur across firms - e.g. Bain has a bigger PE practice than others. It's best to speak with people at the firms in your geography to find out what type of work they do most. However, I find that the people you work with are more important than the industry you work in.

One thing to note is that structure affects behaviour. McKinsey has a global P&L, which may lead to lead to greater international mobility. Although, there are plenty of opportunities for international mobility at BCG and Bain (perhaps too many).

Overall, this advice really only applies to people with multiple offers.

If you have multiple offers, speak with as many people at those firms and find the people who you want to work with the most.

Good luck!

Sidi
Expert
replied on 07/17/2018
McKinsey Engagement Manager & BCG Consultant | Interviewer at McK & BCG for 7 years | Coached 50+ candidates secure MBB offers

Hi!

I started my consulting career at BCG in Germany, got promoted to Senior Consultant, and later switched to McKinsey to do work in several emerging markets. I have a combined 7.5 years experience in both firms and hence can give a good comparison from the inside:

1. Reputation & (perceived) Thought-Leadership

McKinsey is still the gold standard in terms of recognition across all industries, from tech to large established corporates. Whilst on some specific areas other firms might have developed a stronger expertise (e.g. Parthenon is the leading firm for education), everybody recognizes that hiring McKinsey is the safest bet to ensure consistent, high quality work. The level of knowledge created by McKinsey grants it top pages in leading newspapers, a coverage that is still not matched by BCG or Bain. BCG has been trying quite successfully to go in the same direction, establishing reputation as a knowledge-based company, but is not yet there. Bain, on the other hand, has been focusing less on knowledge leadership and instead cultivating a reputation focused on its capability of making things happen by adopting a cooperative approach.

2. Alumni network

Consulting is usually regarded as a springboard to a brilliant career. This is why the alumni network that you'll find when leaving should be considered among the key decision criteria. McKinsey has the largest workforce (8k consultants vs 4.5 BCG and 3k Bain), hence the largest alumni network. Moreover there is a strong cohesion and sense of belonging fostered whilst working at McKinsey that usually remains after leaving. You'll be surprised at how many people who were "counselled to leave" by McKinsey (basically advised to find another job elsewhere) turned themselves into key McKinsey clients after leaving. Alumni networks are weaker in BCG and Bain due to the lack of critical mass and a weaker sense of belonging. However, BCG has become increasingly active in engaging its alumni network, and my subjective impression (as an alum of both McK and BCG) is that they have managed closed some part of the gap to McKinsey.

3. People

All MBB firms are obsessed about hiring the best and the brightest. The smartness of colleagues in all three MBB firms is absolutely amazing. Here I'd say that the main difference in the hiring criteria between McKinsey and BCG is in consistency and ease of being "shaped" according to the standards. While BCG is mostly focused on hiring bright people, McKinsey values a lot the alignment in terms of mindset and the ease of "formatting" the candidate according to the McKinsey standard. This includes speaking using a top down approach, keeping a friendly but assertive approach, and most of all being open to feedback. McKinsey puts a lot of emphasis on the three above characteristics and regards them as a key decision factor in the selection process.

4. Client mix

This varies to a large extent by office and by country; as a general trend, Bain has higher mix of PE clients (Bain Capital, although now separated from Bain, was co-founded by several Bain partners), McKinsey is the leading consultancy for healthcare and governments, especially in developing countries.

5. Projects

It has often been said that BCG focuses more on pure strategic projects, McKinsey on organizational projects. This is no longer the case. All three MBB firms have been trying to move downstream in order to provide end-to-end solutions to their clients going from devising strategies to testing and implementing them. Moreover, they are all massively investing to ride the massive wave of digitalization that is still building up.

6. a) Approach to clients

McKinsey tends to have a more top-down approach and usually takes pride in challenging and often contradicting clients. They do cooperate with clients but tend to be quite assertive in pushing forward their solution. BCG is slightly more “cooperative”, putting a special emphasis on “delighting” clients. BCG consultants often spend a bit more time in order to build consensus in the organization by engaging the middle management, instead of obsessing over analysis (McKinsey way).

6. b) Approach to problems

All MBB firms leverage a lot past work to provide answers including tested, off-the-shelf elements. However, BCG has cultivated a reputation for being looking at each problem with a fresh perspective and building innovative solutions. It is also something that consultants like to hear when interviewing candidates and asking them "Why BCG?"

7. Way of working/resources

A point that is often neglected in answers to this kind of question is understanding how everyday work will change across firms. Whilst there are many similarities (4 days a week on client site, teamwork, challenging lifestyle), there are also two key differences:

  • Staffing: McKinsey is more global in terms of staffing, meaning that you are more likely to end up staffed on the other side of the country but also that you'll have more chances to e.g. do a project in a developing country if you are interested in development or government work. Also, the project teams at McKinsey are mor internationally mixed – hence you might find team members from completely different parts of the world staffed on a project in South Africa for example. At BCG, it would be more homogeneous, e.g., the partner who covers the client will staff most of his team from either his home office or the client’s geography.
  • Support resources: McKinsey wants its consultants, including Business Analysts, to focus solely on value-added activities. To ensure this, it developed large organizations aimed at supporting consultants, such as:
    • Visual graphic centers to ensure consultants can save time by sketching powerpoint slides and have the quickly produced by visual graphic teams
    • Research centers for performing desktop research for consultants
    • Survey desks in India and Costa Rica to set up web-based surveys for clients
    • Analytics centers to help consultants in complex xls macros etc.

Whilst Bain and BCG have both developed similar support resources, they still do not have the scale of McKinsey.

Cheers, Sidi