How we think of a CMO is changing. Specifically, it’s Uber-ifying.
As the senior executive in charge of big-picture marketing strategy, CMO has traditionally been a salaried, full-time job: no moonlighting, all in-house.
But even before remote work became the norm in 2020, employment trends were shifting towards more independent careers.
“It started with the Ubers of the world,” said Jonathan Levine, fractional CMO and startup advisor.
Uber played a key role in mainstreaming the gig economy. But just for drivers.
Then, e-commerce brands “opened up the freelance market in general for all roles,” said Levine.
E-commerce brands “opened up the freelance market in general for all roles.”
E-commerce (and funding for e-commerce ventures) has exploded recently — especially in 2020 — and many fast-growing Shopify shops don’t have the time to recruit help, or the budget to hire agencies.
That’s exploded demand for contract copywriters, email marketers, and even fractional chief marketing officers.
What is a fractional CMO?
A fractional CMO is like a part-time or freelance CMO, especially common in interim positions while the company prepares a permanent fit.
Fractional CMOs direct all of a company’s marketing programs, but lean more on strategy than actual execution.
They typically make strategic decisions around:
- Lead generation
- KPI selection and measurement
- People management on the marketing team
Unlike traditional CMOs, though, they offer strategic guidance on-demand — which means organizations only pay for only the hours and specialties they need.
Though CMOs have broad-spectrum strategic capabilities, they often have a specialty in the marketing field.
“There is no longer a full-stack CMO,” Art Saxby, the CEO of Chief Outsiders, told Forbes. Some excel at brand strategy, others at lead generation, “but there's no CMO who's absolutely great at all the elements of marketing today.”
Hiring a full-time CMO means you’re locked into that one person’s strengths and weaknesses.
Fractional CMOs, on the other hand, allow companies to experiment and differentiate their long-term and short-term strategic needs — at a fraction of the cost.
As hourly contractors, CMOs never require severance or unemployment (or eight-figure salaries).
If you’re interested in hiring a fractional CMO — like many other startups and SMBs at the moment — we chatted with three fractional CMOs about the key skillset for this role.
- Ellen Roggemann, founder of the consulting agency Ro+Co. and fractional CMO at Levain Bakery
- Adam Bridegan, co-founder at Made In and former CMO of Rhone
- Jonathan Levine, current fractional CMO and startup advisor, and former full-time CMO of Hedley & Bennett
6 key skills and capabilities for fractional CMO roles
Here are the six top-priority skills a fractional CMO should have, regardless of specialty or industry.
These aren’t the only things you should search for — the right candidate for your company will also depend on your specific business needs and goals — but they’re enough to get you headed in the right direction.
1. Strategic vision.
Fractional CMOs control the direction of the entire marketing organization. That means they need a sense of the company’s ideal place in the market and how to get it there — AKA a strategic vision.
A strong one requires knowledge of the competitive landscape. “The CMO should be able to analyze the competitive set,” said Bridegan. “Where are the opportunities? The gaps? Where should we be allocating our spend — on which marketing channels?”
A great fractional CMO works to build differentiated, competitive brands. In fact, many CMOs are executive-level brand marketers — they make strategic investments in the right channels and talent, all with an eye towards brand strategy.
That means making sure that brand guides the whole company, not just the marketing team. “It's not just about creative development or campaign development,” Roggemann said. “It's actually about setting up a business that makes decisions through the lens of brand.”
“It's not just about creative development or campaign development. It's actually about setting up a business that makes decisions through the lens of brand.”
2. People management.
As C-level marketers, fractional CMOs need to be leaders. The marketing team looks to them for role definition and career development.
“Usually when I come into a business, the roles in place are relatively general,” said Roggemann. “[My job] is setting a roadmap, not only for how the organizational structure will grow, but how I can give role clarity and definition to generalists.”
“[My job] is setting a roadmap, not only for how the organizational structure will grow, but how I can give role clarity and definition to generalists.”
Though marketers often have to wear many hats at startups, overly general roles don’t set employees up for success. Just burnout.
Figuring out an employees’ ideal focus takes management know-how, especially because fractional CMOs are more often refining an existing marketing team structure than building one from scratch.
The org chart already exists — but team members are often stretched thin and disorganized, with murky career prospects.
Still, specialization and structure can take some selling in a startup environment.
"When small teams grow and marketing generalists onboard specialists and subject matter experts it can be perceived as threatening to their own job security,” Roggeman said. “So it's my job to see strengths in those generalists and give their role clarity and direction rooted in those strengths so they can continue to grow.”
Fractional CMOs can mentor more junior marketing professionals, and help them build their careers — which helps with employee retention in an increasingly competitive employer market.
3. Team building.
Outsourced CMOs are often in charge of team building and hiring. It’s a core competency of the role, Bridegan said — “knowing which roles to hire, when to hire them, and how to build the marketing organization specifically for your brand.”
A CMO candidate should be able to look at your marketing team and identify and prioritize needed roles.
“The CMO would actually look and say, ‘Oh, we need a growth marketing manager,’ or ‘Our first priority is an email marketing manager,’” Bridegan said.
“The CMO would actually look and say, ‘Oh, we need a growth marketing manager,’ or ‘Our first priority is an email marketing manager.’”
Here, a large network of experienced marketers can come in handy. Roggemann works like a one-woman marketing agency during fractional CMO stints — pulling freelance marketing talent, fast.
“I've got my performance marketing team that I will pull in, [and] freelance creative talent that I will pull in,” she said.
Avoiding RFPs and recruiting full-time employees from scratch helps her make a major impact for her clients, without working long hours.
4. Go-to-market abilities.
Levine often gets pulled into product launches with “no strategy.”
Sometimes, they found some baseline evidence that demand existed for the product, but “they didn't think through all the different touch points of how they were going to get the word out there, all the assets, and how they were going to continue that story,” he said.
Sometimes, the difficulty is simpler: It’s a new kind of product, and they don’t have a plan for educating consumers about… what it is.
Fractional CMOs should know how to right those problems and build out a robust, multifaceted marketing plan for your launch.
The “multifaceted” piece is key, Levine argues. Instead of blasting out one message, which could fall flat, experienced marketing executives — like Levine — go into a core product launch with a messaging sequence in mind.
“Every two or three week’s, we’re going to highlight different parts of [the product],” he explained.
Then, he can see which value propositions resonate with the market, and iterate on that — rather than just seeing if the product succeeded or failed.
5. Revenue responsibility.
A fractional CMO needs the fiscal savvy to manage a marketing budget.
They should be able to measure the impact of each marketing initiative their team runs, and adapt spend accordingly — all while keeping an eye on not just return on ad spend (ROAS) and conversion rates, but the ultimate metric: profitability.
“CMOs are really more focused on profitability,” Levine said. “You have your performance [lead], your growth marketing [lead] focused on more of a return aspect… you're pushing back on them to make sure they're not only getting a high ROI and ROAS, but that it's profitable.”
“CMOs are really more focused on profitability.”
Ideally, fractional CMOs not only ensure a profitable marketing team, but they have a solid understanding of how the entire company spends (and makes) money. The marketing department doesn’t work in a vacuum.
“See if they understand how cashflow works in a company,” Levine recommended to companies interviewing marketing leadership candidates.
6. Holistic business understanding.
Speaking of understanding the company as a whole — as C-suite executives, fractional CMOs should understand the entire company.
If marketing is an art, it can draw inspiration from anywhere: the supply chain, customer data, company culture and more.
“It's super-important for CMOs to understand the entire ecosystem of a company,” Levine said. “You should understand how your product gets made. It's not just about customer acquisition costs and what you're spending on advertising.”
“It's super-important for CMOs to understand the entire ecosystem of a company. You should understand how your product gets made.”
To best fulfill your marketing goals, it helps to have a fractional CMO who understands as much about the company as possible.
Where to find a “unicorn” CMO candidate
Now that you know what to look for when hiring a fractional CMO, the next question is where to look.
Startups can look at current full-time executives at major companies that already have the CMO title.
But not only are they expensive — they often don’t have strong backgrounds in e-commerce, social media marketing, and other increasingly mandatory digital marketing skills, Bridgan observed.
You want someone senior who’s worked with digitally native brands — though most of those brands are relatively young.
“It’s almost like you’re looking for a unicorn,” Bridegan said.
“You’re looking for a unicorn.”
MarketerHire can help you find that next-level fit. Our talent team always has their eyes out for the best freelance marketers, and our fractional CMOs are in the top 5% of their field.
Thanks to our rigorous vetting process and MarketerMatch technology, we can find a qualified fractional CMO candidate for your company in 48 hours. Try us today.