Maybe You Need a Fractional Marketing Director — Not a Fractional CMO

I recently blurted out during a webinar that company leaders should think beyond the role of fractional Chief Marketing Officer (fCMO) — and instead consider other fractional roles. Someone followed up to ask me about the downsides to fCMOs, and then I suddenly remembered my past experiences in working with a few of them. They were definitely pleasant, talented and well-meaning, but ultimately failed in the short part-time roles they were in.

Before I get into those downsides, let’s take a step back: Why would you hire a fractional CMO in the first place? A right time might be when a business is strapped for cash or they’re in a period of transition. They can’t afford the competitive salary of a full-time CMO. So they hire someone to work half-time and set the marketing strategy for the transition.

An even better, more thorough answer comes from fCMO (and SparkToro reader), Katie Fagan, Founder/Principal of The Other CMO:

“Often, the size and growth stage of the company dictates when a fractional CMO makes the most sense. For example, a $10M company trying to get to $30M or $50M benefits from a cross-capable marketer who’s also a true business advisor and thought partner — with the depth and breadth to build strategic goals, process, make ruthless budget decisions, build and develop teams, and so on. Starting with a fractional relationship helps preserve budget and lets both parties see if the partnership is solid. As growth kicks in, it can be a lovely transition to full-time marketing leadership.”

– Katie Fagan, Founder/Principal, The Other CMO

Certainly, every business is different, and many organizations can and do benefit from hiring the right fCMO for them. 

But a challenge with hiring the right fCMO is that you need to know exactly what you need from that marketing executive. And if you’re hiring for a part-time marketer, it might be because your business isn’t mature enough for a full-time CMO, or much worse, it might mean you don’t really know what you want out of marketing. So you think it’s a fractional, part-time hire that can set a strategy that a couple of marketing managers see through.

…at least, that’s what I’ve seen most often, when I’ve seen fCMOs fail in a given organization.

When this partnership goes awry, here are the common reasons I see:

Three common downsides of fCMOs.

They have no skin in the game. Fractional CMOs typically don’t have equity in the company — though it’s not impossible for them to ask for equity as part of their compensation package, or even in lieu of a traditional retainer fee. They’re usually not in it for the long haul. So they’re not incentivized to set up the marketing team for long-term growth. If anything, a bad actor is more incentivized to extend their $20k retainer one more month — so they tell you they just need a little more time to finish fleshing out that strategy. 

Due to the friction with the inherent long-term incentives, I’d want to develop a solid understanding of the fCMO’s skills and their past professional relationships before hiring them. I’d want to get a sense of their work history, and I’d do several reference checks on a 360-degree level. I’d speak to a past manager, peer, and direct report or mentee.

They’re bad political allies. The individual human being might be good at office politics. But the fractional, temporary role is inherently a risky political ally. Their short tenure suggests to the other CXOs that there isn’t a solid reason to build a relationship with them. And sadly, it’s unlikely that someone with a 20-hour-workweek is going to spend a large chunk of their day going to bat for a team they’re not meant to mentor longer than a few months. Put another way: no one is incentivized to build relationships with each other. And like it or not, all organizations are governed by politics. If this weren’t true, we wouldn’t have an org chart to begin with.

That being said, mastery of a given company’s politics isn’t the fCMO’s responsibility. And certainly, toxic political structures are not the fCMO’s fault. It’s that the natural, existing frameworks are biased against them, and the fCMO’s success is greatly dependent on a CEO’s willingness and effectiveness in fighting for their budget and inclusion in the organization.

Perhaps one scenario in which a fCMO can be a good political ally is if they also take on the marketing educator role and bear the responsibility of defining marketing expectations and communicating them clearly across departmental leads. 

One fCMO (and SparkToro reader) Marina Carbone, says:

“The fractional CMO’s focus should be both on delivering business objectives and helping the company scale. But also — and very importantly — shaping expectations of what marketing’s role is within the business and ensuring the appropriate foundations and resources are in place to set the team up for success.”

– Marina Carbone, fCMO

Their limited time is spent on strategy, not execution, which often looks invisible. If the fractional CMO is hired to be a strategic visionary, you’re not going to see them editing blog posts, exporting Amplitude reports, or scheduling emails in MailChimp. They’re probably going to spend the bulk of their time in meetings, half of which any given colleague won’t be privy to. As a result, a lot of the work they do (or don’t do?) will be invisible, and you won’t always have a clear sense of what they’re working on or where they’re making an impact. If you’re lucky, you’ll be pleased after a few months of not knowing. If you’re unlucky, you won’t know the waste of time and resources until their contract is up.

One simple solution to get a peek into the progress of invisible work is doing a regular gut check. Maybe it comes in the form of a weekly email, or it’s a coffee meeting. You could ask for one thing they’ve made progress on, and one roadblock that’s hindering them. This allows for a level of accountability while respecting the fCMO’s role.

I’ve seen these three core issues come up enough times that I’ve wondered why more organizations don’t hire for more junior-level fractional marketing roles. Such roles would cost less, require less politics, and be more tactical (and thus, visible).

Screenshot of Amanda's tweet which asks, "When is it a good idea to hire a fractional CMO?"
Lots more interesting discussion on my recent tweet!

Enter: The Fractional Marketing Director

Really think about your business needs and the size of your budget. Might it be possible that you actually need a fractional Marketing Director? 

A fractional leadership role, be it director or c-level, should have a key focus on marketing operations. It won’t be at the same scope of work every time, but a fCMO should create KPIs and processes at the holistic marketing level. A level (or few levels down), a fractional Marketing Director should create KPIs and processes for at least one marketing function.

A fCMO herself, Kristen Johnson, Founder of Wise Marketing Strategy says:

“In addition to overall strategy, I help executives at the organizations I work with understand what they are getting for their marketing investments. This usually entails helping them set up CRM systems or marketing automation tools to their full capabilities to track marketing analytics. I then establish KPIs that map to their overall business strategy, whether that’s showing them where leads are coming from or revenue attributed to marketing expenses, along with educating them on the limitations to marketing analytics. I prepare dashboards and report on results, which keeps me involved in the integrated marketing strategy and execution.” 

– Kristen Johnson, Founder, Wise Marketing Strategy

The fractional Marketing Director (fMD) could be responsible for setting a mid-term strategy across the whole marketing organization. Or they could set the strategy and execution for a specific marketing function (e.g. content marketing, event marketing, or demand generation) while displaying proficiency in other areas, and thus, being able to pinch-hit for intermediate-level tasks like blog writing or setting up a segmented email campaign.

In this type of fractional role, execution is key. The fMD is a tactical strategist, not someone you hire for the grand, chief-level vision. (Or… maybe that is what you want, but with the intention of eventually hiring them in a full-time capacity for that c-level role.)

These are the people on the front lines, rolling up their sleeves to do the work, and doing it really, really well. Little oversight from senior leadership required. Like any role, at any level, an orientation and onboarding period is necessary. But you’re going to be much more likely to see immediate impact from a high-level doer than from a highest-level thinker.

Here’s are some situations in which the fMD could be right for you:

You’re an early-stage startup without a marketing team.

Maybe you or your co-founder have enough marketing proficiency that’s taken you to your first 500 customers. You have some hypotheses for how to build the foundation of your marketing team, but you aren’t sure where to start. A fractional CMO might come in with their pivot tables, offering strategies and asking for budget to hire their favorite agencies to do the work. 

Or you could hire a fractional marketing director to get a few plates spinning on product and email. They could build out some workflows with the customer support team and bring some of the help documentation further up the funnel through product-led content and improved onboarding campaigns. Meanwhile, they can set up a monthly newsletter or design a free course to nurture the leads on your email list. They can see this through for six months, giving you enough time to see what’s working and what isn’t. And by then you might know whether they should receive a full-time offer, or whether it’s a higher priority to hire a product marketing manager to focus on the customer experience.

You have a sophisticated channel but also don’t know what to do with it.

Your beloved content marketing manager has moved onto an exciting new role, and behind them they leave a high-ranking blog that drives tens of thousands of new users to your website every month. Reflexively, you want to hire someone to fill their shoes. But you also wonder if it’s time for a new direction. 

Now that the blog is in a healthy place, should you find a charismatic personality to host your company podcast? Should you hire a passionate data storyteller to double down on your reports and white papers? Or maybe it’s neither and you wonder, should you hire a lifecycle marketing manager to use that content to deepen relationships with customers? So you hire a fMD to flesh out where your content program might go next. It might not end up being the perfect long-term strategy, but you have a solid chance of getting a talented person to make headway in a short amount of time.

There are certain seasons in which a different marketing function is high-priority.

Maybe it’s only July through November that’s especially chaotic as the marketing team ramps up for holiday shopping. Or you sell to accountants who are most receptive to new business three months prior to the April and October tax deadlines. Or you host an annual user conference in the summer, and you need the most help from April through June. Your busy season is fairly predictable, but they’re pivotal moments for your business so you want to ensure you’re hiring top talent. Enter: the fMD with a specialty in event marketing who knows exactly which booth vendors to hire, what swag to order for the best price, and who can work in lock step with your demand generation manager to schedule all the promotional campaigns.

Yes, Titles Matter

Look, if titles didn’t matter, then everyone in your organization would simply be called “marketer” and you’d have a flat structure where everyone reports to the CEO. There’s a reason we don’t do this.

It’s because titles do matter. They indicate a specialty as well as a level of expertise and strategic prowess. If you hire a fractional CMO and assign to them manager-level tasks of running a social media account or launching a webinar program, you’re doing your company and that fCMO a disservice. That fCMO who’s handed only a manager-level task won’t fully utilize their c-level expertise. You might signal to your team that you don’t know what a chief marketing officer does. And you might be over-paying for deliverables. Likewise, if you hire a “consultant” to fully own your go-to market strategy for a major product line, you’re showing that you simply farm out senior-level vision to temporary workers.

The fractional hire may very well be a consultant in practice, but assigning them the wrong title ultimately signals a lack of awareness of the job needed. And that lack of awareness is sure to crack the foundation of what could become an incredible marketing team.

Of Course, It Depends…

Like anything in business or marketing, it depends. Fractional CMOs aren’t “bad” and I’m not saying they can’t have healthy, successful partnerships with businesses. But not all startups, small businesses, or large organizations are built equally. And anybody who hires anybody needs to go into it with their eyes wide open.

I’m just asking you to keep your eyes open to more possibilities — which might very well include a fractional Marketing Director.