Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore the paradoxical image of consultants as “experts without expertise.” It examines the extent to which different stakeholders’ perceptions of consultants’ expertise are aligned, and why. Design/methodology/approach – This research applies a creative approach to survey methodology by asking different stakeholder groups to react to consultancy expertise cartoons. This is followed by a rhetorical interpretation of the perceptions of consultants’ expertise using pathos. Findings – This survey revealed that employees are the most critical of consultants, while clients and consultants retain positive impressions of consultants’ expertise. Unexpectedly, relative to other stakeholder groups, academics occupy a moderately critical position like outsiders. Given that consultants and clients value the same indicators of expertise, this explains the latter stakeholder group’s positive valuation. Research limitations/implications – Since this study focusses on the expert image of consultants more generally, the authors cannot differentiate the conclusions for perceptions related to different types of consultants based on discipline or the image of their specific role (e.g. expert vs coach or change agent). Practical implications – Consultants and academics need pathos that is stakeholder dependent, for getting their expertise better accepted. Originality/value – This paper helps explain why managers, despite the many criticisms of the services consultants provide, continue to hire consultants for their expertise. Furthermore, it sheds light into why managers prefer the services of consultants vs those provided by academics. It also nuances the assumption that academics are the main critics of consultants. Instead, this paper identifies that the majority of consultant critiques come from employees in client organizations.