Making a Fractional CMO add up - building an organizational marketing team to meet the sum total of your needs

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher April 8, 2021
Could a Fractional CMO be the answer to your organizational marketing needs?


Management and boards are looking to marketing leadership for inspired thinking around business recovery. They want to see predictable and profitable revenue growth, improved operational capacity and efficiency, effective demand generation and pipeline provisioning, as well as new areas of customer value creation and revenue optimization.

When I read this paragraph in a new CMO Council report, “Scaling the Value of the CMO,” my first thought was how fast times had changed for the CMO. It seems there are a number of organizational priorities planned for marketing in 2021. The top two are expanding marketing automation and data analytics programs and resources, while deepening marketing capabilities across all functions.

(An interesting side note - the list of priorities was long, but nowhere was Account-Based Marketing mentioned - unless it was wrapped up in the marketing automation category).

Anyway, it seems like it wasn’t that long ago that CMOs were fighting for a seat at the executive table. Now they are considered the potential ‘saviors’ of an organization. Yet, many CMOs still struggle with getting the basics of marketing in place and working well, partly because the basics are constantly shifting.

Carrying on the fight

In another CMO Council survey, over half of the senior marketing leaders admitted that they were struggling with 86% saying, ‘A lack of leadership depth and capabilities has resulted in missed revenue and customer acquisition opportunities’.

The top 4 key skills lacked were cited as:

  1. Customer journey, acquisition, and conversion.
  2. Segmentation and personalized messaging at scale.
  3. Actioning on customer data insights.
  4. Demand generation and pipeline.

There are other challenges for CMOs as well. To deliver on all new expectations, CMOs have to work across divisions and bring together people that aren’t used to working together as well as strategies not designed to work together. Then there are the new roles, like Chief Revenue Officer, Chief Customer Officer, and Chief Growth Officer, that also take on some of these CMO responsibilities, and you can see that things start to get murky for the official marketing person.

Where does the Fractional CMO fit in?

With the CMO under so much pressure to do many things, some of which they lack the skills to do, the question arises as to whether a Fractional CMO might help. What’s a Fractional CMO? One definition is:

A Fractional CMO is a marketing executive who divides time between multiple clients, working with each a 'fraction' of the time. They also cost a fraction of what a full-time CMO does, making them a perfect solution to many SMBs marketing conundrums.

But according to the CMO Council report, only a third of Chief Marketers have used sub-contractors, such as a Fractional CMO. Instead, they spend their time trying to find the right full-time resources, despite it sometimes taking six months or more to onboard a new senior functional leader.

There are benefits to Fractional CMOs, according to the report:

  • Faster ramp up and time to performance.
  • They are proven performers and doers.
  • They have a range of competencies and capabilities.
  • Domain expertise and knowledge.

In many cases, a Fractional CMO, as defined above, comes in as the only CMO for a company, typically one that isn’t ready for or can’t afford a permanent CMO. This Fractional CMO sets the marketing department's strategy and direction, helps get the team on board to deliver on that strategy and then leaves, sometimes with the VP or Director of Marketing coming in to take over.

Then there’s the type of Fractional CMO that this report seems to talk about - one that comes in and works alongside the current CMO, filling in the gaps to help get things moving faster. This makes sense on the one hand because no CMO is going to understand everything, so having partnerships with consultant CMOs who are highly experienced in certain areas is a useful additional resource. In this scenario, the Fractional CMO delivers on a specific strategy or project using their experience and expertise and then leaves.

But there’s the other aspect to this type of partnership that CMOs need to be careful about. What happens if a Fractional CMO comes in with ideas that differ greatly from the strategic path the CMO is on and develops plans that don’t work with the majority? The term 'too many cooks spoil the broth' comes to mind.

Then again…what happens if that fractional CMO is right?

Bridging, not widening, the divide

One of the biggest challenges with marketing today is the silos of work that don’t connect to enable a consistent customer experience. Having multiple CMOs defining and implementing different strategies without an overall plan to fit them together from the beginning is asking for trouble.

It’s not that the Fractional CMO idea is bad per se, but they can’t operate in a silo. Suppose they are responsible for defining and implementing a key component, such as setting up marketing operations, building the customer journey or positioning. In that case, the work they do affects everything else that happens in marketing. Even if their work isn’t a key strategic driver, that work must fit in with the rest of the marketing strategy.

My take

The pandemic has put marketers on a new path. One that has forced them to re-think many of their strategies and plans. Customers were changing anyway, so any CMO who wasn’t already thinking about a different future was never going to survive the COVID crisis.

There is just too much that a CMO needs to know. Their focus is spread across the company and requires too broad an understanding to delve deep into most areas. Having the right team is critical, and a Fractional CMO can be an asset to help get things moving in the interim until that team is built. Just be sure to understand how their work fits in and how you will work together to achieve success.

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