Last year, the average tenure of chief marketing officers (CMOs) hit its lowest point in over a decade: three years and four months.
Meanwhile, the average tenure of other C-suite executives reached an all-time high of six years and eight months.
Maybe it’s because marketing moves fast, or because it’s hard to find the right fit. Maybe the pandemic made it harder to onboard first-time executives successfully.
Whatever the reason, the industry has reached an inflection point. Full-time CMOs no longer offer companies long-term leadership, but it still costs major time and money to recruit them. They’re turning into a lose-lose proposition.
Fractional CMOs, on the other hand, look more and more like the future.
These on-demand executives make sense in today’s gig growing economy. They’re quick to hire, and they work only as many hours as you need them to — which makes them a great fit for startups and small businesses worried about their bottom lines.
They also fit neatly into tomorrow’s gig economy. Fractional CMOs can slot neatly into leadership and strategy roles on what Not Boring’s Packy McCormick has termed “liquid super teams.”
These on-demand teams of experts assemble around a specific project (or marketing initiative), and disband once it’s done.
McCormick argues that they “can be a superior alternative to full-time employment for people who want to retain optionality, flexibility, and individualism while leveraging the benefits of an expanded network, specialization, and community.”
Liquid super teams “can be a superior alternative to full-time employment for people who want to retain optionality, flexibility, and individualism while leveraging the benefits of an expanded network, specialization, and community.”
That describes a lot of senior marketing professionals — so liquid super teams could be the future of the marketing function.
But when’s the right time to hire a future-proof C-suite executive? And how should you go about it? We asked three of our expert fractional CMOs to share their trade secrets.
- 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
Why it’s worth investing in a fractional CMO
“I think a lot of startups and emerging brands… don't need a CMO,” said Levine. “And I think the smart ones who say they need one, probably don't need a full-time one.”
“A lot of startups and emerging brands… don't need a CMO.”
Their primary focus is on execution and establishing product-market fit, and they only need a few hours of strategic guidance a week.
A fractional CMO makes perfect sense for these early-stage companies. These executives have similar capabilities as full-time CMOs — directing strategy, managing teams, generating leads, overseeing the budget, running any RFP processes — but clients can scale their hours up and down as needed.
That lowers CMO costs, and makes for a more effective and agile C-suite hire than a full-time CMO. Full-time marketing executives command an average annual salary of over $150K, according to Glassdoor — and can cost as much as $15 million at major companies.
Fractional CMOs still have executive-level strategic skillsets, but because they’re contract employees, companies can try out a variety pack of them. For example, a startup could hire a fractional CMO who specializes in lead generation, and once the business stabilizes, they could swap in one who specializes in brand strategy.
But for companies of all sizes, fractional CMOs take a lot of the risk out of the CMO hiring process. They don’t chew up as many recruiting hours, and they’re lower risk from a pricing standpoint. If they’re not a good fit, you can part ways without paying severance or unemployment.
6 signs it’s time to hire a fractional CMO
Fractional CMOs may be the perfect fit for some companies, but how can you know if they’re right for your situation? We asked our experts to list the top signs your team could use a part-time CMO.
1. You’re not yet ready to commit to a full-time CMO.
There’s no shame in it. Hiring a full-time executive is like getting married.
“It's a pretty heavy commitment,” said Bridegan. “Months are spent on the recruiting phases, and you're typically talking large salaries [and] equity pieces.”
Hiring a full-time CMO is “a pretty heavy commitment. Months are spent on the recruiting phases, and you're typically talking large salaries [and] equity pieces.”
Then you still have to wait and see if it works out long-term.
Considering full-time CMOs’ expected salaries, that’s not a gamble many startups are willing to make.
But a fractional CMO “mitigates a lot of the risks for both sides,” Bridgen said, giving you the chance to test-drive your options.
What experience and skillset would help your company the most long-term? Is 20 hours a week enough, or do you need a full-time CMO?
“[Hiring a fractional CMO] allows you to fill that gap and identify what your needs are and... see if there's something there long-term,” Bridegan said.
2. You need an interim or temporary CMO — fast.
At more mature companies, fractional CMOs often take on short-term positions while full-time CMOs are on sick leave or parental leave — or just plug-in during the months it takes to recruit a new full-time CMO after one quits.
Many leadership teams don’t understand “just how fast” a fractional CMO hire can be, Bridgen said. In a matter of weeks a fractional CMO can hop on board and start creating real impact.
Some fractional CMOs will even help scout for their full-time replacements. “I can jump in and pass the baton to the next leader... often [I] help recruit them and find them,” Roggemann said.
“I can jump in and pass the baton to the next leader... often [I] help recruit them and find them.”
That makes a fractional CMOs a real two-birds-with-one-stone solution for plugging holes in the C-suite, which usually occur at critical “inflection points” in a business’s lifecycle, Roggemann said.
“I’m embedded long enough to ensure that things are ready for the next chapter of acceleration,” she explained. “And then, when they bring the next person on, they're walking into something that is in a strong position.”
3. Your marketing department can execute — but they need guidance on what to execute.
Startups often start out by hiring team members who can get things done, and only later hire managers and big-picture strategists.
You know you’re in the awkward in-between phase when your company’s existing marketing team is chock full of doers, but you’re not sure what to do.
Should they focus on developing a go-to-market plan for a new product? Content marketing? Other marketing efforts?
This issue can arise for a lot of reasons. Maybe the person currently in charge of the in-house marketing team is a CEO or CFO — not a marketer at heart.
Or maybe your current marketing leader is multitasking across multiple teams, and doesn’t have time to focus on marketing strategy.
A fractional CMO often fills exactly that kind of void, offering “leadership and guidance and mentorship” to more junior full-time employees, Roggemann said, so that their marketing careers don’t “plateau.”
4. You need help managing your agencies.
“Everyone complains about their agencies,” said Levine, “but as somebody who's been on both sides, you're probably not managing your agency effectively.”
“Everyone complains about their agencies, but... you're probably not managing your agency effectively.”
Fractional CMOs won’t just lead the individual contributors on your marketing team — they can elevate your agency management game, because they have experience reading between the lines.
Whether you’re working with an agency in PR, paid search, SEO, or beyond, they’re probably “only showing you the positive results,” Levine explained. “Even when they show you a negative, they're sugarcoating with, ‘Well, this was down, but this campaign was up.”
Fractional CMOs know how to push back on a surface-level marketing agency narrative with follow-up questions about less-than-stellar results, like:
- Why did we run that campaign?
- Why do you think it didn't perform?
- How long did we run it for?
- Did we A/B test any elements of this campaign?
“If you don't know what they do, then you don't know how to ask them the right questions,” Levine said.
5. Your marketing isn’t consistent across channels.
You know you need to hire a fractional CMO “when you have disparate marketing channels,” said Bridegan.
You might have a social media team, a brand team and growth marketing team — and none of them communicate or collaborate effectively. Sometimes, their efforts actively conflict with each other.
Maybe the brand team wants to emphasize the premium nature of your product, while the growth team tests messaging that highlights low prices and flash sales.
One of the central duties of any CMO is to unify all the marketing endeavors. If you put that responsibility in the hands of someone who’s already stretched too thin, something is bound to slip through the cracks.
“You need that [fractional CMO] to be the mediator to make sure that we're all speaking the same language,” said Bridegan. “You need that CMO to drive alignment so that, regardless of any customer touch point, it's consistent. It's cohesive.”
Ideally, a company’s marketing campaigns all highlight complementary value propositions and convey the company’s brand clearly — while still feeling native to their channels.
6. You’re interviewing full-time candidates who don’t get startup life.
The problem with hiring a CMO who’s used to working with large companies is that they understand... large companies.
For startups and new businesses, hiring a Fortune 500 CMO isn’t always a great investment.
“If you're a digitally native brand growing at 200% and you're trying to build a marketing team, and then you try to recruit a CMO from a [multi-billion-dollar] company... that CMO would absolutely struggle with the unique challenges of being in a startup,” Bridegan said.
“If you're a digitally native brand growing at 200% and you're trying to build a marketing team, and then you try to recruit a CMO from a [multi-billion-dollar] company... that CMO would absolutely struggle.”
They might not understand digital marketing as deeply as you need them to, or they might focus on brand awareness and PR when you really need performance marketing strategy.
If you’re encountering a lot of high-profile, weak-fit CMO candidates, a fractional CMO is more likely to have a “startup mentality and growth mindset,” he said.
Especially when you factor in the costs of recruiting, they may be a higher-ROI hire.
3 pro tips on hiring a fractional CMO
If you think a fractional CMO is best for your company, finding the right one can still be a challenge. To give you a head start, here are a few hiring tips from our experts.
1. Ask how they analyze unexpected situations.
Adaptability is vital to fractional CMOs. They’re coming into a company already in full swing and have limited hours to make an impact.
Bridegan suggests asking your prospective hire to explain a situation with a previous client where they adapted the strategy to address an unexpected change.
What challenges did they face? How did that disrupt their existing strategy? How — and on what timeline — did they analyze their new set of options and update their marketing plans?
Bridegan admitted that “it's very difficult to identify the analytical chops” required for a marketing executive role — but when candidates tell a true story, they show you their analytical thinking in action.
2. Swap a formal interview for a conversation.
When interviewing for a C-level role, Roggemann suggests keeping it casual and conversational.
“When I interview a peer… it's more of a dialogue than it is me grilling them on their expertise or asking particular questions,” she said.
“When I interview a peer… it's more of a dialogue than it is me grilling them on their expertise or asking particular questions.”
By this point in their careers, executives have already proven their expertise — and they know the perils of a bad fit as well as you do. It’s a two-way interview: Both parties are trying to figure out whether the fractional CMO’s style and specialties will fit the company’s marketing needs.
No need to impose a rigid structure. Or bring a rubric.
“It's usually an opportunity for me to answer a lot of questions and talk to them about the job,” Roggemann said, of her interviews with CMO candidates.
3. Consider culture fit.
It’s a controversial, nebulous concept — some say a “failed concept” — but no one impacts company culture more than C-suite leaders.
An apathetic CMO, even a fractional one, can create a culture of apathy.
“Are they excited about the opportunity, the brand, the mission, the ethos?” Bridegan said. “To me, that's probably the most important, because you can't teach excitement or work ethic.”
“Are they excited about the opportunity, the brand, the mission, the ethos?”
When a fractional CMO onboards, they have a responsibility to learn as much as they can about your company, as quickly as they can.
That’s easier when the person is passionate and eager to learn. Otherwise, they’re bound to miss something.
Jumpstart the hiring process
Ready to hire a fractional CMO? MarketerHire has already started the process for you by pre-vetting a pool of candidates, narrowing them down to the top 5%.
We can cut your recruiting process down to just days. Fill out our quick four-minute questionnaire, and we’ll hand-pick our best candidate for you within 48 hours.