Why the fractional CMO position seems to be catching on

The benefits can go both ways, providing companies with expertise they otherwise might not be able to afford and executives more flexibility.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

CMOs aren’t exactly known for staying in one place very long.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Richard Sanderson, marketing, communications, and sales practice leader at executive search and consulting firm Spencer Stuart, told us that short tenure “does not equal failure,” as the firm found that many chief marketers who left between 2019 and 2021 went on to a “similar or bigger role.”

As executives consider their next step, some are considering whether they want to work full time—or, at least, full time for one company. Enter the “fractional” CMO.

Some see the role as a great opportunity for employees looking for flexibility and different opportunities, and for companies looking to potentially save money.

Wholly fractional

Chief Outsiders is a staffing firm that was created in 2009 to connect businesses with fractional CMOs. Deborah Fell, managing partner at Chief Outsiders, told us that the firm has worked with more than 1,550 companies to date and saw 25% revenue growth last year.

“When we started, we were explaining what we meant by fractional and explaining the whole concept of how this could work,” she said. “We’re not doing any more education.”

Fell attributes companies’ increased interest in fractional CMOs to two things: The ability to get executive expertise that may be otherwise unaffordable at a full-time rate and the ability to find someone quickly, bypassing the often monthslong executive-search process. She said the firm mostly works “with the mid-market” companies but has also fielded requests from large companies.

She said the firm’s CMOs work for Chief Outsiders and are often scoped on projects with multiple companies at once. However, working through a firm or with multiple companies isn’t the only option for execs looking to go fractional.

Go your own way

Kristine Ford, fractional CMO at canned-seafood brand Scout, told us she recently decided to take on the role at 20 hours per week in search of work-life balance.

“In this role, I’m able to take 20-plus years of experience in the industry to hopefully make a really big difference. But at the same time, I do have kids, and I can try to find that balance and have more time for that,” Ford, who’s previously held marketing roles at Deep River Snacks and Spindrift, said.

As of now, she said her responsibilities include overseeing retail placement, generating brand awareness, and overseeing freelancers and agency partners, as well as Scout’s six-person internal marketing team. She said the plan is to eventually go full time, pending the company’s continued success.

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“I do think that, especially for smaller companies or companies that don’t want to be in a position of potentially laying people off later, if there’s a lot of fluidity and fast growth, fractional can be a really wonderful way to be smart about staffing up,” she said.

Jina Wye, who is transitioning out of the fractional CMO role at Scout, told us that the position works well for startups particularly “because they don’t really have the budgets for a full-time VP of marketing or chief marketing officer, but they need that level of expertise.” However, given the nature of startups, she said it can sometimes feel like having multiple full-time jobs if working for more than one company, as she did with Scout and Singapore-based food brand Irvins.

Another potential drawback? There usually aren’t benefits. Sabrina Kautz, head of marketing at CPG brand Diana’s, told us that in her time as a fractional CMO, she created an LLC and bought her own benefits in order to get things like health insurance.

Still, had her fractional work with Diana’s not evolved into her full-time position, she said she would still be working in a fractional capacity. Working with three to five companies at once, she said, allowed her to network and figure out if a company was a strong fit before making a full-time commitment.

You get a fractional role, you get a fractional role…

While CMOs seem to have started the fractional trend, Kautz told us she’s seeing more brands embrace fractional-leadership positions, having worked with fractional sales and financial officers. Even Chief Outsiders is now placing fractional chief sales officers.

Eric Segal, founder of consultancy X & O Company and former agency fractional chief creative officer, told us that as people got used to fractional CMOs, he found that the agency he was working at became more comfortable introducing him to clients as a fractional CCO.

“We’re starting to see fractionality almost as a bigger story, and how that idea is affecting all aspects of the business and marketing mix,” he said.

As for whether we’ll get to a world where every C-suite is fractional? “I do think there’s a line,” Segal said. “Somebody’s got to be at the helm all the time.”

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