Six questions for Chris Preston on the rise of independent consultancy

26 June 2017 6 min. read

The number of independent consultants in the UK has been growing rapidly in recent years, on the back of the wider gig-economy trend visible in the professional services landscape. Chris Preston, Managing Partner of Odgers Connect, a company that provides high calibre professional individuals to organisations, reflects on the main drivers behind the rise of independent consultancy and on his firm’s positioning in the industry.

Why has an executive search firm entered the management consultancy market?

Our parent company, Odgers Berndtson (a leading executive search firm operating in over 50 offices across the globe), has well established and deep relationships with private and public organisations across all sectors. It’s evident that all clients increasingly value flexibility, cost-effectiveness and a range of options when they source talent, and independent management consultants are an important part of this mix. We believe we’re uniquely well placed to offer high-calibre independent consultants as part of the talent mix to clients.

Is Connect competing with the big management consultancy firms?

Yes and no. We often pitch for work against leading traditional consulting firms but increasingly clients who have used the model come to us first when the project they are looking at requires the seniority and flexibility that independent consultants offer. There are also many situations when a client may shy from the commitment and spend of calling in a major consultancy firm, but could nonetheless benefit from a high calibre individual supporting them on a particular project – and so this is what we do. In some situations, this enables an organisation to bring in a consultant when otherwise it might not be affordable, or too big a commitment. For example, a leading housing association recently came to us for support to implement a new strategy and, by using an independent, this option was affordable and indeed made sound commercial sense.

Chris Preston - Managing Partner of Odgers ConnectWhich organisations are making greatest use of independent consultants?

That’s a tough question because we see demand both evenly spread and steadily rising. We recently analysed new business enquiries over the past 18 months, for instance, and found them split more or less in even thirds between publicly-quoted companies, other private companies and government/ not for profit. Meantime when we asked our consultancy base about their expectations looking ahead, almost all (96%) said they expect demand for their services to continue to rise, in large part driven by the need for all organisations to address a range of external economic challenges.

So what do you see driving client demand?

We asked this question of around 400 independent consultants working with us, to get a sense of what they hear and see about this and almost 9 out of 10 said they see external factors as key drivers of their services. Digital transformation (a £2.26 billion market, roughly a quarter of the UK’s entire £7.31 billion consulting industry) and growth topped the list, but dealing with the challenges of Brexit and an economic slowdown weren’t far behind. From our own meetings with clients we consistently hear the same three factors driving demand: seniority of engagement, price and flexibility.

More generally though, it’s clear that a quiet revolution is underway in the professional workplace. Individuals increasingly want more control of their professional lives – indeed consultants tell us overwhelmingly this is the main reason for working independently – and organisations want more flexibility and better control of costs. This is a trend that’s only going to gather pace.

Quote Chris Preston, Odgers ConnectWhat about from the consultants’ point of view?

Mostly we work with very senior people who have already had a highly successful management consulting career in a leading advisory or strategy firm. We’ve found that whilst people may start working independently for a variety of reasons – ranging from burn-out in a big firm, to a better work/life balance or quite often to fund an entrepreneurial venture of their own – they almost all want to continue. Bright people enjoy life at many levels, and that’s what we see in our consultants. They enjoy professional challenges and working hard, but they want a life, and to pursue their own interests and professional passions too.

What do you see ahead, for Odgers Connect and independent consulting?

I see our firm continuing to grow in response to rising demand from clients, and also more professional consultants choosing to work independently. For both sides, this is a win, and many consultants are also highly entrepreneurial – setting up their own businesses, or working independently to subsidise wider professional activities and interests. But this is a new workplace, which politicians are currently struggling to understand. Part of our mission is to help get this across; organisations benefit from using independents as much as professionals benefit from working independently.

Related: Independent consultants form opportunity for wider consulting industry (opinion article by Daniel Callaghan, CEO of Talmix).