Where fractional CMOs fall short (and the five questions to ask when hiring one)

Fractional CMOs are having a moment. With senior marketing talent in high demand in the B2B tech world, there’s been a rise in companies hiring fractional CMOs. True Search, a leading tech executive search firm, recently launched a new business which is essentially a search firm for fractional executives. WSJ covered fractional CMOs, citing Covid and funding levels as fueling increased demand for senior marketing executives. And personally, I was just invited to join a Fractional CMO Facebook group, with over 1000 members.

Despite this post’s title, I do believe in fractional CMOs (or VPMs – VP Marketing). There are many compelling things about hiring a part-time, interim marketing executive for your tech startup (or scaleup):

1) The benefits and results are clear. Faster hiring (and firing), no politics, access to experienced people who for various reasons are currently not interested in being your full-time CMO. 

2) It’s a much better solution than compromising and hiring the desperation VP Marketing.

3) Lastly, at Blue Seedling, we strongly believe that the future is remote, self-employed, and fractional. This is how we partner with our clients and our team members. So anything making this a reality is definitely my jam.

In fact, I’ve been a fractional CMO / VPM myself, many many times, and have tweaked my approach along the way. And that’s where it dawned on me that unfortunately, a fractional CMO often falls short of your needs.

Across these fractional CMO experiences, a pattern emerged: Initially, I was doing a good job. Did some research and analysis, met my stakeholders, set a solid strategy, and created a promising marketing plan and budget. But then, when it was time to execute… I hit a roadblock.

As any marketing leader knows, marketing is a team sport. You can’t execute a marketing strategy on your own. It’s a matter of both bandwidth (too much work for one person) and skillset — there’s no one marketer who can do everything from messaging to branding to demand gen to content marketing to event marketing. Also, let’s be real: a senior exec isn’t likely to get their hands dirty with all the execution work.

So what’s a founder / CEO to do? Should you not hire a fractional CMO at all?

Here are five questions to ask yourself to assess if a fractional CMO will be a good fit.

  1. Is there someone on the marketing team who can be the interim marketing leader? Perhaps with internal or external mentorship / coaching? We’ve seen this scenario play out better than parachuting in an executive, who’ll need a while to learn the product and company, and gain trust internally and externally. 
  2. If not, how will the team deal with the fractional CMO – and vice versa? An interim CMO’s job can be easier if there’s a team in place for them to manage – but it can also be harder, in case the team rejects the new CMO. Have final candidates meet key team members, and make sure there’s a fit.
  3. What are the current gaps in the team? Identify the major gaps in capability and bandwidth (e.g. “we need a graphic designer, an event manager, and two content marketers”), and ask your fractional CMO candidates what their plan is for dealing with them. “Hiring new people” isn’t a great answer, since you’ll be looking at months until seeing value from these future hires – and from your expensive interim CMO. A better answer? See the next point.
  4. Does the candidate have complementary vendors / freelancers / agencies at the ready? A good CMO will have her favorite vendors ready to join her in her next adventure: graphic designers, PPC agencies, content marketers, and even functions like Marketing Ops and Product Marketing. And go into the details here: How many times have they worked together in the past? Will you need to contract and manage the relationships yourself (=lots of overhead)?
  5. Check under their fingernails – are they dirty? 💅 An interim CMO, much more than an in-house executive, must be willing to roll up their sleeves to get things done. 

A better solution altogether might be hiring a full-stack marketing agency (disclosure: I’m the CEO of one – Blue Seedling :)). Such agencies specialize in jumping into a new company and industry and quickly delivering value. They have an “Ocean’s 11” team with different specialties across marketing channels and the strategy / execution continuum. And this team is a bona fide team, who’s used to working together. (Here’s an example of such a client scenario, where we functioned as the interim marketing team for a FinTech scaleup for two years).

The bottom line

A fractional CMO can be a lifesaver for your company. But make sure you explore the potential limitations and pitfalls, and consider a full-stack marketing agency as an alternative. (and for those of you going the in-house route, check out our crash course for building your in-house B2B marketing team).

Netta is the founder and CEO of Blue Seedling. She loves third wave coffee, thin crust pizza, and B2B marketing.

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