In one of my favorite West Wing episodes, President Bartlett is playing chess with Sam Seaborn. He implores Sam to “look at the whole board” and at the end of the scene, Sam realizes the sleight-of-hand President Bartlett had played to diffuse a brewing military crisis.  I was reminded of that scene yesterday when I was reading the commentary about Epstein Becker’s  announcement of a “strategic alliance” with Deloitte.  The internet was near meltdown with “the Big Four are coming” refrain.

Look at the whole board.  Are they here?

Look at the whole board.  What do the prinicpals mean by “strategic alliance.”  Two words that, pinned together, suggest the combination of Amazon and Apple.  Or maybe just an agreement to sell Apple products on Amazon. Oh, by the way, the Apple products being sold on Amazon are just watch bands (actually, there are more, but allow me the literary license to make my point).  Both Deloitte and Epstein Becker are sophisticated and PR-savvy.  Both have good writers capable of saying things clearly or less so.  The writers are good enough to say nothing in a way that sounds like what they are saying is revolutionary.

Look at the whole board.  What have the parties actually agreed to?  What conduct will be different? What do customers get besides fancy marketing talk? We may never know, but they announced is an intention to refer each other business in geographies in which they do not practice. Because Deloitte US cannot practice law, why not get some referrals in return for referring the US work?

Look at the whole board.  The arrangement is “non-exclusive.”  If the parties were actually starting to date with plans to get serious with one another, you would expect some exclusivity. Instead, Epstein Becker will be able to provide “joint service offerings,” which is marketing-ese that translates into “we’ll have a couple of meetings and then talk about what a beautiful date I have, even though we aren’t really dating.”  Fancy talk to make you see something other than “the whole board.”

We’ll know more in a year–if this agreement is what people were suggesting it was, Epstein Becker’s revenue and profits should soar in 2019 and those numbers will be reported in early 2020.  In the meantime, count me a doubter.  And customers being sold the “combination of the century” or whatever it will be called, would do well to ask to understand the economic connections, the workflow connections, the responsibility for outcomes and the efficiencies that the combination creates. What are the metrics that show the combination yields added value to the customer?

Look at the whole board.