The Lean Marketer Blog

What is a fractional CMO and why your company may need one

Fractional CMO meeting in a cafe with a client Fractional CMOs have made it to the Wall Street Journal, which means that what I’ve been doing happily for the last 10 years has become totally mainstream. If you’d like to learn more about what a fractional CMO is, read on. 

So what exactly is a fractional CMO? 

Let’s start with the CMO part of the phrase. Chief Marketing Officer is itself an amorphous term, with each company and CMO themselves defining it slightly differently. Depending on if your company is Business-to-Business (B2B) or Business-to-Consumer (B2C), and the size and stage of the company, your CMO will have slightly different responsibilities. 

Generally, the CMO leads the marketing strategy and execution for the company. This can include hiring and supervising the marketing team, overseeing marketing planning and budgets, generating brand awareness and leads, overseeing the marketing tech stack, and every other aspect that would traditionally go under marketing. The CMO is the marketing team member that represents the marketing group in management meetings, and usually before the board. 

And now for the fractional part 🙂 

If you remember from elementary school math, a fraction is a part of a whole. So basically what it means is that a fractional CMO works part time for the company. This can be as an employee, or, more typically, in a consulting or freelance arrangement. 

How companies benefit from fractional CMOs

Quicker hiring and onboarding

Hiring key personnel can be challenging, especially for early-stage companies, and hiring a CMO especially so. Even if you know the exact profile of the candidate you want to hire, it can take weeks or even months to find that perfect candidate, convince them to join your company (since they will definitely have other offers), and then wait through their notice period until the magical day they can start working for you. And this is a best case scenario.

However, many early-stage companies don’t know exactly what they need; a lot of questions come up during the process that they are probably not equipped to answer  – should you limit yourself to someone with experience in your specific industry? Someone who is located in your target market or closer to R&D? Do you need someone who is amazing at demand generation? Someone who can take your brand to the next level? A fantastic hirer and manager of other marketers? 

All of these questions – many of which have no ONE right answer – can make it difficult for a newish company to even know where to start looking, let alone how to interview the people they’ve found. For early stage companies, this learning process often happens in parallel to the hiring process, which makes the hiring process take even more time, and can turn off your top candidates since they’ll see your company as wishy washy or inexperienced. 

This is where a fractional CMO can be a huge help! Not only are they typically available to start right away (they either have availability or they don’t, in which case move on to the next fractional CMO), but over time, they can help you answer all those questions about what your company needs to look for. The fractional CMO can shoulder the burden of setting up the company’s marketing (or growing it, depending on the stage of your company), and help you better define the CMO role moving forward. 

So when you are both ready to move on to the full-time in-house CMO, the company will be much better prepared to search and select the right candidate for the job. And the company feels less pressure to choose quickly because the fractional CMO will often stay on until the full-time CMO is hired. I’ve done this several times, and it’s gratifying to pass the baton to a great marketer I like and trust, and often helped hire. 

More experience for less cost

Most fractional CMOs are experienced executives who have been-there-done-that for decades. In my case, I’ve led marketing at dozens of startups, gone through IPOs, secondary offerings, expanded into new markets, launched innovative products, achieved recognition from industry analysts, you name it, I’ve done it marketing-wise. 

Most of the fractional CMOs I know – and there is a pretty substantial community of these lovely people – are similar in terms of having been around the block a few times. The company that hires one of us for the equivalent of a few days a week, will not be paying a full time salary plus benefits, rather a fraction of that. 

And let me tell you a secret – our brains don’t turn off on the days we’re not supposed to be working for you. Some of my best ideas come in the shower or while washing dishes :).  

Unlike hiring a senior executive which typically involves a board decision to give them options, and adding them to your comp plan, hiring a consultant or freelancer is much less of a commitment. Of course, if it doesn’t work out with a fractional CMO, you’ve still lost valuable time, but it’s much less painful than going through a lengthy hiring process and then finding out that it’s not a good fit. 

You hire someone who truly loves what they do

Personally, I love the variety of being a fractional CMO since I get exposed to so many cool and different companies. Having to reinvent all the time, and finding what works for each company keeps me current about today’s marketing trends, and the things I learn about marketing at one company can often help me be a better marketer at another company. 

I also love the fact that as a fractional CMO I am mostly insulated from office politics. And I manage my own time, meaning I keep a close eye on work-life balance. These advantages work together to keep me happier, which positively affects the work I do with my clients.

Are there any disadvantages to working with a fractional CMO?  

Of course it’s not all rainbows and unicorns when bringing in a fractional CMO. Here are some of the disadvantages:

Fractional CMOs are outsiders

Even though most fractional CMOs will roll up their sleeves and dig in deep, they are still not officially part of your team, no matter how you look at it. They may have a company email address, be on your Slack, even participate in Whatsapp groups, but the sheer fact of their part-time hours, together with the fact that they work mostly remotely, and (shh…) they also have other clients, means they are not as fully involved in the day-to-day of the company. They may have more difficulty getting access to that specific person they need to approve something, or miss a quick update about a new customer or feature that happens over lunch. Luckily, now that more people are working remotely this is less of an issue. 

Most fractional CMOs will still go the extra mile when needed since we’ve been in the in-house hotseat before and know when it’s time to make the push. As an in-house CMO, there were times I had to be on zoom calls at 11 pm three days a week for weeks at a time while working on a project with people 10 time zones away; as a fractional CMO that’s not going to happen – I love my work-life balance too much to go back to that craziness. That said, if something has to get done urgently and we’re on a deadline, I’ll of course step up – I tend to, shall we say, overdedicate myself :).

Fractional CMOs are temporary 

The outsider-ness of the fractional CMO tends to go hand-in-hand with the fact that the relationship is assumed to be temporary. Of course, sometimes people forget that any job is temporary – according to research by Spencer Stuart the average tenure for in-house CMOs is 40 months, the lowest it’s been in decades. Often companies need to hire a fractional CMO because of a particular stage they are in – just establishing their presence, entering hypergrowth, strategy shift, etc. And these stages do come to an end eventually – or blow up beyond the capacity of your part-time resource – and it’s time to hire that full-time resource to take over. 

While according to the Wall Street Journal article, the average tenure of a fractional CMO is six to nine months, in my case I’ve had the pleasure of fractional CMO-ing at various companies for several years, and when it’s time to say goodbye I am thrilled, since it means that – with my help – the company has outgrown my services. In some cases, I’ve stayed on in an advisory capacity, which helps lessen the sting of goodbye on both sides. 

If you want to learn more about our fractional CMO services, feel free to reach out!

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