how to hire a fractional cmo

How to Hire a Fractional CMO

The Complete Guide

You want a fractional CMO? Smart. Here's how to pick the right one.

7.5 min. read


hire a fractional cmo

Hiring a fractional CMO? 

You’ve come to the right place.

This is a step by step guide to everything you’ll need to hire the right fractional Chief Marketing Officer.

Why a guide?

Even though fractional CMOs are a great way to access marketing leadership that’s otherwise unaffordable for young growing companies. It can still be a complex senior hire.

It can be hard to tell just how senior, experienced, and management-ready someone is from the fractional CMO job title.

The hierarchy seen with full-time roles like CMO, SVP, VP, Director, Coordinator, etc. doesn’t exist the same way with fractionals. So it’s helpful to have some objective criteria as you look for a match between your company’s needs and the right fCMO.

This guide will help you understand your company’s needs and goals, then match them with your hiring options to find the right fractional CMO fit for you.

There’s also a handy reference Checklist for Hiring a Fractional CMO.

It’s the zen of going from marketing panic to peace.

What are your needs?

hire a fractional cmoYou may think you already know this. 

Yet I speak with many companies that come with one type of engagement in mind but later realize they need something different. 

fCMOs work in many ways, but what I see most often falls into the following five categories:

  1. Advisor/Consultant. Hiring an fCMO for strategic advice, guidance, or coaching is this type of engagement. The fCMO will share resources, frameworks, and connect you to providers in their network. They don’t take responsibility for implementation or take accountability for outcomes; that’s on you.
  2. Project/Assessment. This is typically a short-term engagement for a specific project or objective. It can lead to a longer-term arrangement, but doesn’t need to. It’s often a diagnostic project such as a go-to-market assessment, a tech stack or content audit, or even a generic marketing effectiveness assessment. It may also be specific projects such as a branding workshop, a messaging exercise, or building a marketing plan. I include “extra bandwidth” engagements in this category, where you know what projects need to be done, but can’t complete them all on time with your internal team.
  3. Go-To-Market (GTM). Often this is what companies need, but don’t know it. In the past, GTM was code for sales. Today, GTM is a cross-departmental exercise in nailing down the fundamentals of getting a company or a product launched into the market. It often includes validating the customer, product, message, and channels as a prerequisite to building a repeatable marketing motion. Because it’s foundational, gaps here often hamper marketing efforts until they are resolved.
  4. Demand Generation. Gimme the leads, baby! If you have moved beyond founder-led sales and hired sales reps, you’ve got mouths to feed. Attempting this if your GTM isn’t buttoned up will only lead to pain and frustration, so make sure your core is validated. If you need funnels mapped, conversion improved, and qualified prospects for your sales team, this is you. Managing a paid ad budget, fully fledged content programs, event strategies, and workflow automation are typical here as well as scaling the repeatable motion you defined in the GTM stage.
  5. Interim CMO. Typically if a full-time CMO has left or been fired, an Interim CMO steps in to keep the wheels on the bus until a full-time replacement can be hired. It’s common for this engagement to include reporting relationships with junior team members and insertion into the senior management team. Often a fit for larger companies and requiring more time from the fCMO.

Whatever the engagement type that’s right for you (it could be something that doesn’t fit exactly into the five types I have listed), you and your prospective fCMO need to be on the same page about it.

It helps if you’re self-aware about a few things here.

What is your appetite for experimentation? Marketing is almost always a process of discovery. Experience helps remove the risk that experiments will yield poor or unhelpful results, but it can’t eliminate it. Do you and the prospective fCMO feel the same about this?

What touch points are expected with your existing team? Do you need mentorship for junior team members?

Does your budget include room for additional vendors, resources, and service providers? Sometimes one of your goals might be simply to access the fCMOs network. 

It’s important that you agree with your fCMO about each of these variables.

What are your goals?

bridge to full time?Transparency is key here.

What are you looking for this hire to help you achieve?

Are you looking for long-term growth, or a short-term shot in the arm? Timelines are a blessing and a curse for marketers. Many marketing initiatives take time to yield results. Yet how much time can the company afford to wait for those results? At what point are things just not working? 

Similarly, do you expect a long-term or short-term engagement? Is this a contract you expect to continue indefinitely? Or is there a clear end in sight? What does a successful conclusion look like?

  • a full-time hire? 
  • a completed project? 
  • a company milestone?
  • a fundraising event?
  • a revenue target?
  • an ROI metric?
  • a customer/logo count?

What Are Your Options?

You have alternatives.

Some choices can look similar, for instance will you be better off hiring a fractional CMO who is a solo consultant or a fractional CMO firm that can match you with one of their fCMOs? Would a marketing agency be better than a fractional leader? 

Fractional CMO vs. Agency

fractional or firm?Should you hire a fractional CMO (and likely need some additional implementation resources), or find a marketing agency? 

It’s common for me to meet prospective clients who have “scar tissue” from failed agency engagements in the past. 

I don’t think it’s because agencies or CEOs are bad people, engaged in bad faith, or had any nefarious intent. Typically, CEOs hire agencies because they are trying to fill a gap. They need marketing help. But they often don’t know how to set the agency up for success. 

Agencies are by definition focused on executing in their zone of genius. Narrowly focused agencies tend to have a Maslow’s Hammer problem, making it hard to turn down business regardless of the fit.

For example an SEO agency may struggle to tell a client that SEO isn’t really what they need.

Even “full service” agencies may not have the experience to guide or push back on a CEO. These agencies tend to be good at many things, but great at none.

I’ve seen many failed agency relationships where the missing piece was the interstitial strategic function to translate and manage the needs and expectations of both sides in order to be successful.

An fCMO provides that. They also negotiate on the client’s side of the agency relationship and render opinions to the CEO on whether agency performance meets expectations or not.

(This isn’t a hard and fast rule. Experienced agency owners are some of the best marketers I know and can have a great understanding of the big picture.)

Solo fCMO vs. fCMO Firm

Most fCMOs are solo practitioners.

They are nimble and flexible. 

Firms have an overhead layer and tend to be more expensive as a result. Some advantages offered by firms are:

  • If your fCMO doesn’t work out, the firm may be able to assign a new one so you don’t have to start your search from scratch.
  • The firm probably shares systems, processes, and best practices. 
  • Bad fCMOs are risky for the firm, so there’s a quality check.
  • Marketing covers a HUGE number of activities. A team can include more skills and experiences than any one solo fCMO.

Whatever structure you prefer, there are some keys to evaluating an fCMO for fit.

Finding the Right Fit

finding the right fractional cmo fitAs you look for a fractional CMO that fits your needs, relevant experience is huge.

Surprisingly, many fCMOs have never been full-time CMOs before. The fractional job is unique and neither full-time CMO experience or lack thereof are always reliable indicators of capability. But it’s a signal that you should consider. 

Be sure to ask if they have done what you need before.

Relevant previous experience might include:

  • Working with small companies. Small companies are resource constrained with limited budgets and team size. This can be a HUGE challenge for someone who has only worked at large companies.
  • Working with large companies. This may indicate they know how to build teams and/or have seen what future stages in your growth should look like?
  • Experience in your industry. Do they know your space?
  • Comfort with ambiguity. Marketing is often about discovering things that are unknown. The earlier your company the less well-known and validated your fundamentals will be. You want a marketer who is comfortable here.
  • Brand vs. demand? Marketers tend to favor their right or left brains, meaning creative disciplines like writing, design, content creation, branding, messaging, etc. or more analytical disciplines like demand gen, marketing ops, data analytics, reporting, paid ad management, etc. Does this experience match your needs? (Pure brand marketing experience is usually a bad fit for younger companies, but becomes essential as companies mature.)
  • B2B  or B2C experience. Some marketers have done both, but if they don’t have experience that matches your customer that is a red flag.
  • Ecommerce or D2C experience. Strategies and skills for e-comm are not something you want your fCMO to pick up on the fly.
  • Account Based Marketing (ABM). If this is part of your motion, you want a marketer who has done it before.  

Does the candidate have systems, processes, and frameworks for moving key questions from unknown to known? Can they articulate that journey so you aren’t blindly trusting them or feeling like you’re walking in the dark?

How is the balance of strategy and implementation handled?

I believe a CMO of any description should own the outcome. But it’s atypical (and not usually desirable) for fCMOs to execute everything themselves. Some provide only strategic guidance while others are more apt to roll up their sleeves. There should be a shared expectation for how this will work.

Do they have a library of playbooks to deliver basic functions quickly and efficiently? Playbooks beat bespoke implementation and experience means that your fCMO will have solutions to problems they have seen before, but which are new to you. 

Have they given you references to check?

Finally, one big advantage to fractionals is that they are less risky than full-time hires. 

Full-time hires can take 6-9 months to hire and often have equity compensation and or severance issues to navigate if there isn’t a fit. Fractional CMOs however are much easier to iterate with. 

I hope you feel better prepared to make a great fractional CMO hire.

If you’d like a free Fractional CMO Hiring Checklist, grab yours at the link below. 


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