The Realities of Hiring a Fractional CMO


A growing number of companies in early-stage, high-growth mode are opting to retain part-time CMOs to provide strategic marketing leadership. The proposition is alluring - get high-end experience and insight for a fraction of what it would normally cost. However, this beguiling proposition is doomed to failure if a company is not honest with itself regarding its current structure, needs and expectations.

A fractional CMO (FCMO) works best when everyone understands that:

1) Part-time means part-time - Typically, a company will retain an independent executive for anywhere from one quarter to two-thirds or more of his or her time. This inherently means that the hired gun is going to be working on other things simultaneously, so don't be surprised when they do. It's part of the trade-off. Much like hiring an ad agency or PR firm, you are retaining a fraction of the person's availability. Therefore, it is critical to agree to specific service levels from the get-go (e.g. On-site vs Virtual? Response times? Overages? Reporting/Tracking? Regular and ad hoc meeting participation? KPIs? Metrics?). There are too many areas for possible misunderstanding or misdirection to leave it to chance. Bottom line: Clarity up-front prevents disasters downstream.

2) Part-time is not a panacea - Effective marketing requires some degree of marketing infrastructure. A senior part-time resource managing only variable external resources is a recipe for disaster - there has to be at least one (or more) dedicated, full-time employee(s) at the mother ship to be a first line of tactical defense. If there isn't, you might as well paint a sign on the back of your FCMO that says, "Kick Me." Why? Because the very fact that the FCMO is part-time means that there are times when s/he cannot be available - and every other department within an organization that has any level of dependency on marketing for its own deliverables will use the FCMOs unavailability as a reason for any delay or failure they experience. They don't mean to - it's just collective human nature to find a scapegoat for failures when the pressure is on. And there's no better target than the person who's only there part-time. Bottom line: Resist the temptation to believe that you can hire a fractional CMO without having full-time internal marketing resources to support him or her.

3) Part-time takes time - Developing and executing great marketing, even with a talented internal team and phenomenal external resources, takes some time. Getting to a well-sequenced plan with the right strategies and tactics, and then executing properly takes discipline. Doing all of this with a part-time resource can take even longer due to limitations of focus inherent in the fractional structure. By accepting a part-time structure, you should also be prepared to adjust your time-to-impact expectations accordingly - there is rarely a way things can move as quickly with a FCMO as with a dedicated, full-time leader. It's just the nature of the arrangement.

Bottom line: Getting to great marketing results takes time. Getting there fractionally can take even more - be realistic in terms of expectations.

4) You hired the fractional CMO for a reason - Often times, when hiring a fractional CMO, the company has neglected marketing for so long that there is a massive wish list that would make even Santa sweat. And the day the FCMO starts, everyone expects their need to be met and that their deliverable is most important . Aside from being an impossible situation, it is exactly the wrong way to approach marketing. There are a vital few things that are truly urgent and important - the stuff that will move the needle...the stuff you actually hired the FCMO to do in the first place - but without support and reinforcement from the rest of the senior management team regarding the ability to say "No," the part-time marketing leader will be crushed under the density of equally weighted minutia.

Bottom line: Allow the fractional CMO to focus on what really delivers impact, ensure that s/he doesn't get drowned in a tidal wave of minutia, and give full executive team support to the FCMO's priorities.

Putting the aforementioned caveats aside, exploring a Fractional CMO structure can be a cost-efficient way to bring senior level marketing knowledge and experience into an adolescent company needing to balance spend. Its success or failure will depend upon clear expectations, an understanding of the arrangement's limitations, and disciplined leadership. If you can be brutally honest about your company's situation, marketing infrastructure, and motivations, it could provide an effective option for your company.

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