The top 50 private sector think tanks and research firms of the globe

06 June 2016

The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, a research programme that evaluates the quality of think tanks and research organisations globally, has unveiled the latest edition of its ‘Global Go To Think Tank Index’. McKinsey Global Institute – the research arm of management consultancy McKinsey – has been named the globe’s top private sector research house, followed by Germany-based Deutsche Bank Research and UK’s Economist Intelligence Unit.

As it stands, the globe has nearly 7,000 think tanks – organisations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues, thereby enabling policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about a range of policy areas. Think tanks may be affiliated or independent institutions, and in terms of ownership can be either public sector owned or act as (independent) units of private sector enterprises*. North America has the largest number of think tanks (28% share of the total), followed by Europe (26%) and Asia (18%). 

Every year these think tanks produce thousands of policy documents, market analyses, research reports and points of view. The question however is: which think tanks stand out from the crowd, and which ones produce research which can be regarded as, among others, the most credible and impactful? In a bid to separate wheat from the chaff, The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP; a program at the Lauder Institute, University of Pennsylvania), in the research scene often referred to as the “think tanks’ think tank”, conducts research on the role policy institutes play in governments and civil societies around the world. The research involves a review of the output of all think tanks in its database, as well as input received from over 4,750 journalists, policymakers, public and private donors, and functional and regional area specialists.

Number of think tanks globally

Based on the combination of both inputs, the TTCSP evaluates the world’s leading think tanks on a variety of categories, including the quality and reputation of the research and analysis produced, the quality and reach of publications, the quality and reputation of leadership and staff, the ability to recruit and retain elite scholars and analysts, access to high-ranked institutions and/or policy makers, utilisation of research and the impact on society.

The latest edition of the so-called ‘Global Go To Think Tank Index’, now in its ninth year, finds that, across the board, the quality of research and policy documents is on the rise. More than half the think tanks are university affiliated, and close to 55% of all think tanks are in North America and Europe, with about one quarter of US think tanks (approximately 400 institutions) located in Washington, DC. Nine out of ten think tanks were created since 1951, but the rate of establishment has declined over the past decade in Western economies. Think tanks founded in this period are mainly based in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and North Africa – in particular Asia has seen a dramatic growth in research houses since the mid-2000s.

Globally, US-based Brookings Institution has been named the top think tank, while Chatham House (UK), Bruegel (Belgium) and the French Institute of International Relations (France) have been recognised as the top performing institutes outside the US.

Origin of top 50 private sector think tanks

Top private sector think tanks
In the category for private sector think tanks, the top spot goes to McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), the business and economics research arm of strategy consultancy McKinsey. Founded in 1990, to develop a deeper understanding of the evolving global economy and provide facts to inform management and policy decisions across sectors, McKinsey Global Institute’s work is funded entirely by McKinsey & Company and undertaken by McKinsey consultants staffed to MGI, just like a client engagement. Commenting on the recognition, Richard Dobbs, a London-based director who co-leads MGI, says he is “proud of the unit’s impact”, adding “We get to delve into issues that have never had a global, macroeconomic lens applied to them.”

McKinsey Global Institute has in recent years provided in-depth reports that covered more than 20 countries and 30 industries, assessing topics from job creation, to resource productivity, and the impact of the Internet. Among the studies produced by MGI are a study on the global economic impact of obesity, an assessment of the economic value added of the Internet of Things and a study on the costs to society of gender inequality in the workplace. Commenting on the obesity study, Dobbs, who recently celebrated his 25th anniversary at consultancy, says: “We looked at the impact of the epidemic and more than 500 initiatives to determine which were successful in the fight against it. It was a challenge because the debate on obesity had become quite hostile and our firm serves clients with a variety of perspectives on the issue. We were able to inject facts into the global discussion. We discovered obesity costs more than war globally, and there isn’t a silver bullet to tackle the problem.”

MGI also regularly conducts research on the macro-economics of countries. The arm, for instance, recently found that China is facing a major innovation challenge, that the Saudi economy should sooner rather than later embark on a diversification strategy (consultants of McKinsey are in fact playing a key role in supporting Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with his plans) and that South Africa’s economy would need a massive investment boom to accelerate its growth rate. 

Number two in the ‘Global Go To Think Tank Index – For Profit’ list is the research arm of banking group Deutsche Bank, while the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) holds third spot. The top five is closed by Oxford Analytica (based in the US) and Japan’s Nomura Research Institute. The research unit of global consulting firm A.T. Kearney, known as Global Business Policy Council, is placed sixth, followed by three US-based think tanks: Google Ideas, Eurasia Group and EY. Korea’s Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) closes the top 10.Top 50 private sector think tanks globallyThe positions between 11 to 25 host seven research arms of consultancies – Strategy& (includes its Strategy + Business publication), IBM Institute for Business Value, GovLab (Deloitte’s arm that focuses on public sector policy), Boston Consulting Group (includes its BCG Perspectives publication), the research hub of Big Four PwC, Bain & Company (includes research conducted by The Bridgespan Group) and The Parthenon Group (part of EY). German management consultancy Roland Berger ranks 33rd in the prestigious list, followed by French-origin Altran (#34) and Deloitte, which holds 36th spot.

In total, twelve consulting firms have made the ranking, according to the researchers illustrating the quality of the industry’s thought leadership and the contribution the sector is making to economic and societal policy.

* In the methodology of TTCSP, think tanks broadly fall into seven categories: autonomous and independent, quasi independent, government affiliated, quasi governmental, university affiliated, political party affiliated or for profit.


Accenture's push into the creative sector is an identity crisis

18 April 2019

In its latest push into the creative sector, Accenture Interactive acquired New York and London-based ad agency Droga5 earlier this month, adding illustrious clients such as HBO, Amazon and The New York Times to its roster of clients. With the latest in a long line of similar purchases, Accenture Interactive further demonstrated its ambition of becoming the globe’s leading trusted advisor to chief marketing officers. Yet according to Ben Langdon, Chairman of Class35, Accenture’s strategy may be heading in the wrong direction.

A press release on Accenture’s website announcing the acquisition sits next to a quote stating that “brands aren’t built through advertising” – a huge contradiction from a consultancy firm hell-bent on becoming the ‘CMO agency of choice’. It’s not alone of course. The entire consulting industry wants a piece of the creative pie right now. In addition to Accenture Interactive, recent acquisitions by PwC Digital, IBM iX, and Deloitte Digital meant that in 2017, for the first time ever, four of the world’s ten largest creative agencies were consultancies.

So just what it is that Accenture wants to achieve from this? For one thing, it’s clearly trying to be a digital transformation business. A one-stop creative shop rivalling more traditional models, it wants to lure CMOs in with the promise of lower ad spend and a “more impactful customer experience”. At the same time, though, it’s still in thrall to those same slinky, shiny branding and advertising agencies it’s attempting to disrupt. The Droga5 acquisition and that of Karmarama a few years before are both testament to this.

There’s a fundamental problem with this, though. Digital transformation businesses don’t sell to CMOs. These people have enough on their plates trying to transform their own marketing skills in order to keep up with an ever-changing market – they just don’t have the time or the energy to concern themselves with digitally transforming a whole business. If Accenture’s purpose is digital transformation, then going after creative agencies is barking up the wrong tree.Is Accenture's push into the creative sector an identity crisis?

Worlds apart

Perhaps more importantly, these two industries are worlds apart in terms of the way they think. Creative agencies are all about ideas, campaigns and consumers. Digital businesses, on the other hand, are customer-driven – they think in terms such as lifetime value, measurement, and efficiency. Customer-led thinking is an entirely different beast to consumer-led thinking.

The reality is that the arrival of digital and an all-encompassing obsession with technology, measurement and social has led to the death of agencies in a reductive, zero-sum, efficiency-focused battle with brands. Indeed, agencies have become so obsessed with the latest tech fads, they’re beginning to forget how brands work. Worse still, they’re beginning to forget how brands are built. And, by forgetting, they’re destroying their own values.

Killing creativity

All things considered, it really feels to me as though Accenture is a chip leader in a game it doesn’t understand. Expensive acquisitions like these show that they’ve got the big money, but they don’t appear to have any idea what they’re doing with it. Take talent, for example. The best talent in the creative industry right now is out in the market; it’s not tied to any one agency. Both agencies might well be at the top of their game, but why would a consulting firm waste so much money on buying them when they could hire high-quality creative talent on a contingent basis instead?

As their presence in the top 10 creative agencies shows, there is a growing trend in which Accenture, like many of the other big players, are buying up agencies as if they were nothing more than keywords. What they’re really buying, though, is a collection of credentials, clients and IP. Unfortunately, the talent that created those credentials aren’t going to stay at the business, the clients that hired the agency in the first place won’t be interested in buying what is basically just another part of Accenture, and the IP never really existed to begin with.

Droga5, for example, was one of the few agencies that did great brand work the old-fashioned way – undoubtedly something that made it attractive to Accenture in the first place. The irony, though, is that by leading it further away from the way of working that made it so special, the consulting giant will kill its creativity.

“Accenture Interactive has been dazzled by its ambitions to become the CMO agency of record…. But, in flashing its cash, it is spending millions on acquiring nothing of any value.”

If pressed, the recently acquired agency staff at Accenture will tell you just how dysfunctional the new arrangement is. They’re largely unfulfilled. Rarely do they feel their work has any sort of meaning or purpose. What’s more, the different disciplines have found little or no common ground, and find it hard to work together as a cohesive whole. It’s not surprising, then, to see talented people leaving in droves.

Beyond the window dressing 

It’s clear, then, that consulting firms and creative agencies are no easy bedfellows. But in his company’s defence, Accenture Interactive’s Senior Managing Director for North America, Glen Hartman, described its culture as being “far, far away from what a stereotypical consulting firm would look like. Our office and studios look a lot like Droga5’s.”

In demonstrating a belief that office design equates to workplace culture, this statement serves as an illustration of how confused Accenture is right now. It wants to justify its new strategy so badly, it’s started dressing like a creative agency. But if you look beyond the window dressing and see that you and your partners are speaking a different language with a different purpose, selling to different people in a different market, there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re different.

Accenture Interactive has been dazzled by its ambitions to become the CMO agency of record, and it wants to dazzle others with its new direction. But, in flashing its cash, it is spending millions on acquiring nothing of any value.

Related: Space between consulting firms and creative agencies is converging.