What is a fractional CMO?

by Laurie Heller

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Hiring a CMO is a big decision, albeit an incredibly exciting and expensive one (the average CMO brings in just about 300k annually).  It signifies that you are taking your brand seriously, concerned about its perception and care about your customer experience. That said, many small businesses, face a real challenge making this hire because a full-time CMO might end up eating up a big chunk of your marketing budget -- and what they end up with is an amazing senior marketer who has little-to-no resources to execute the actual work. Alas, we’ve arrived at the distinct moment when a fractional CMO seems like a great plan B.

So what is a fractional CMO, exactly?

A fractional CMO is seasoned, part-time (hence the word fractional) marketing executive who generally has at least 15-20 years of experience driving category-leading growth for brands. That might seem like a generic description because it is. And for good reason. If CMOs were sold at an ice cream shop, there’d be multiple flavors. It’s important to note that each company has its own taste preferences and needs as well.

Some fractional CMOs are great at driving brand and being the voice of the customer, some are digital and customer acquisition-focused and then there are others who are commercially minded -- or strictly more on the operations side. There’s probably a few others we have missing in this pie but we hope you get the gist of where we’re going.

To help paint more of a picture for you, Bain and Co. issued a report last year describing 3 distinct CMO archetypes

  • Creative iconoclast: the visionary who personally comes up with the next big idea. (Bain has referenced Don Draper from MadMen and we totally love it. Creative iconoclasts notoriously come from big agencies or brands like Coca-Cola or have led beautiful brand campaigns that span all marketing channels-- traditional as well as some digital.
  • Professional general manager of marketing: According to Bain, Procter & Gamble gets most of the credit (or blame) for “professionalizing” the marketer’s role. These folks run well-oiled ships and are extremely process driven.
  • Digital wizard: a CMO who has almost a pure play a background in digital marketing and/or data and analytics. For companies who aren’t well-versed in digital, this is a surefire way to go if you need to get up to speed.

One thing we think is missing from the above is what we all love to call the Generalist CMO: someone who has worked across every marketing channel and business strategy (B2C, B2B, B2B2C, B2C2B, etc.). While that's a lot of Bs, you need someone A+.

Is your head exploding yet? We hope not but know it might be at least just a little. The good news is there are tons of benefits to hiring a fractional CMO.


The benefits of hiring a fractional CMO

  • Financial: You can get C-level seasoned marketer at -- well, -- fraction of the cost, without the long-term commitment
  • Expertise: Your senior management team will end up getting a crash course in marketing and learn how to better understand the function and what is needed to set the strategy longer-term
  • Low-risk: there is no serious long term commitment so if you find you’re not a fit parting ways isn’t as complicated.

Sounds great, right? Of course it does, but here’s where we see fractional CMOs falling short:

  • Fractional CMOs are often hired to come in and set the strategy, but sometimes smaller to medium-sized companies don’t have the resources to tactically execute. In these scenarios, what companies end up with is a few beautiful decks with no one to do the actual work. This is where we think it’s critical to make sure you hire one that comes with a built-in team.
  • Fractional CMOs might come from Fortune 500 companies who are accustomed to having armies of marketers underneath them and might not be up-to-date on the latest technologies or approaches so you need to be careful when choosing the right one.
  • Team buy-in. You’d be surprised but this comes up more often than not. If you’re a CEO looking to make a fractional CMO hire, your entire management team needs to be on board and open to change -- that means sales, product, operations, etc. and that’s not always easy to accomplish. Make sure your team understands the need for this person and function-- otherwise you’ll end up wasting a lot of time, money and frustration on both ends -- yours and the fractional CMO.

Questions to ask when evaluating if a fractional CMO is right for your business

  1. What are you most struggling with as a business? And how are you expecting a fractional CMO to help with that?
  2. Do you have the right infrastructure in place to hire a fractional CMO? Are there any systems in place like a CRM, marketing automation, email, and/or text triggers? Do you have a marketing technology stack? PRO-TIP: If the answer is no to #2, we shall point you in the direction of who Bain refers to as the Digital Wizard (ahem, we fit the bill as well).
  3. Do you have any roles already within the business that sit within marketing? If the answer is no, you can add assisting with hiring and organizational structure to the list of requirements.
  4. What is your budget? How long can you afford a fractional CMO? Is this someone you need for three months or the full year? If you don’t know, starting a three-month project might be the way to go. We suggest reviewing your positioning first, it's where many problems start.
  5. What type of background is critical to your business? If you’re a B2B SaaS company, hiring someone out of P&G probably won’t be your best bet. Nor would someone out of a big B2C branding agency.

    While this is a lot to think about, it’s better to sort through the above before you bring one on. If you need help figuring out the best route and/or you're in need of the master generalist CMO, give us a holler for a free consultation. Talking marketing is one of our favorite things.