Full-Time vs. Fractional CMOs – The difference and benefits of each

Full-Time vs. Fractional CMOs – The Difference and Benefits of Each


A business’s staff is arguably the most important asset of all. Its collective level of commitment, ability to focus on important goals and put in consistent effort toward their achievement all go a long way toward determining that business’s success.  

The Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) holds a very pivotal role for that staff, taking responsibility for the planning, buildout and execution of a company’s marketing initiatives that will ultimately determine profitability. The CMO is not only entrusted with creating that marketing strategy, but also for leading a marketing department and being a strong — and often visible — advocate for the company they work for, so it’s definitely a multi-faceted position.

Not all companies have the same marketing needs, and for some of them, keeping a full-time CMO on staff may be an unneeded luxury. In some cases, the role may be better filled by a fractional CMO, defined by Forbes as a marketer who works with businesses for a fixed amount of time in a given month, often just a handful of hours.

Because companies vary so markedly in this area, let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of Full-Time vs. Fractional CMOs, as well as how they differ.

Let’s Make One Small Disclaimer Before Starting

The title of CMO is usually reserved for larger companies — although it’s pretty common to find a sole proprietor or an employee of a more modestly-sized business refer to themselves as a “chief marketing officer”. By stricter definition, the role is considered to be a C-level executive.

For our purposes, we’ll use company size — in the form of annual revenue — as one of the determinants of whether a full-time CMO or a fractional CMO is a better fit but we won’t entirely rule out the use of either based on where a company may stand on this metric.

The Benefits of a Full-Time CMO


Full-Time CMOs Often Have Better Focus

A full-time CMO only has one company to work for — and therefore, focus on. Marketing is an ongoing process — planning, fine-tuning, implementing, and analyzing a marketing plan doesn’t happen overnight and it requires a lot of attention.

In most cases, there’s a reasonable expectation that a newly hired full-time CMO won’t be going anywhere anytime soon and the continuity that this brings is usually a decided asset. This is especially true for a sizable company with a large marketing budget and an array of marketing initiatives. Every company’s trajectory is different as it matures and a longer-tenured CMO will generally be well-suited to building and refining all the “moving parts” of a company’s marketing funnel.

They’re Effective Evangelists for Their Companies

While CMOs may vary as far as their social skills outside of the company they work for, most proven, time-tested CMOs who would be in line for a full-time position have built large networks within their industry — both digitally and virtually — that can come in very handy. They’re likely to put in considerable effort to promote the companies they work for and maintain strong working relationships in their field.

Full-Time CMOs are Usually In it for the “Long Haul”

Because of the skillset of the position, finding and hiring a full-time CMO can be an arduous process. Factor in advertising for applicants, properly screening and then, ultimately interviewing — usually for multiple rounds — before landing the right candidate, and it’s also time-consuming.

There’s also plenty of upside in not having to train a new candidate for the role anytime soon. Assuming that a company is financially sound, and not prone to any major idiosyncrasies in its company culture, it can expect to work with its chosen CMO for some time to come. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the average tenure of a CMO stands at about 3.5 years.

From a historical perspective, that’s pretty brief, but it’s still enough time to create valuable continuity.

Drawbacks of a Full Time CMO


Full-Time CMOs Are Expensive

Planning and overseeing a company’s marketing initiatives, as we’ve already noted, is a complex and challenging responsibility. Add to that the need to be able to effectively supervise a marketing staff and you have a varied skillset that isn’t all that easy to come by. This versatility comes at a price and also, because of their importance, CMOs are generally expensive hires.

Not only do they tend to command a sizable salary, but many are also looking for equity in the company. This can be both a literal and symbolic drawback for its owners — if a company’s success skyrockets in the future, it may be due at least in part to market trends, so company owners may feel like they’ve given up “a piece of the pie” unnecessarily. Also, with equity usually comes stronger input, which may undercut an owner’s authority down the line. Throw in health care benefits and the other incentives usually extended to employees, and you have a pretty sizable cash outlay.

Commitment Can Be a Double-Edged Sword

We’ve previously noted that having a CMO around for the long haul helps create continuity and minimizes disruptions that might have a negative effect on a company’s bottom line, but let’s look at tenure from a different perspective. What if things don’t work out?

There are a number of dynamics that go into a strong working relationship between CMO and company. The ability and willingness to do the job well is just one of them. There might be clashes rooted in company culture, personality differences between the CMO and other execs, job burnout and more.

Parting ways with a CMO to whom a company has committed can be a difficult task — it can even have legal ramifications in some cases. At the very least, barring any dismissal based on misconduct, there will likely be some sort of severance package involved and, assuming the CMO in question was an effective leader, such a parting of ways is almost certain to cause ripples of resentment on the part of the marketing staff, which may affect its performance.

Too Much Leash Isn’t Always a Good Thing

Marketing has a substantial creative component to it, and more than a few marketers tend to consider themselves to be “out of the box” thinkers whose unique insight and experience might lead them to come up with new marketing initiatives, or at least substantially different takes on existing ones.

This can be good in some cases — not every company benefits from the same approach. On the other hand, because a full-time CMO tends to get more leeway over time, that CMO may extend influence into aspects of the marketing funnel that aren’t necessarily that executive’s strong point — such as a push for an ill-advised PR theme that could lead to a negative consumer response, for example. 

A Full-Time CMO Might be Overkill

Just what constitutes an effective mix of marketing initiatives may vary dramatically from company to company, and some companies do great with a fairly limited array of them. For example, if a company relies largely on content, social media, and email marketing and yet hires a full-time CMO whose areas of expertise are far broader, it just might be buying more executive than it really needs. The company’s interests might be better served by fulfilling its needs on a more “a la carte” basis.

Now, let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of a fractional CMO.

The Benefits of a Fractional CMO


By definition, a fractional CMO usually works part-time for a company and may have other clients, although some work for just one company more extensively on a contract basis and may move from company to company when their contract expires.

This recent CMOX article notes that fractional CMOs are best suited to companies making less than $50mil in revenue.While there’s a correlation between revenue and the suitability, we’re going to stick to our original premise and avoid such a strictly drawn line in the sand.

Fractional CMOs are a Simpler Hire

A lot goes into hiring an accomplished full-time executive — creating recruitment ads, properly sorting responses, interviewing for multiple rounds and more. If everything works out, that’s great — but if it doesn’t, a company has to start that process all over.

Companies generally work with fractional CMOs on a clearly delineated, contractual basis — often a relatively short term one. If all is going well when that contract comes to a close, and both parties are happy with the relationship, then the contract can simply be extended. If things get contentious, the contract ends and far less damage is potentially caused.

They Command a More Modest Compensation

Fractional CMOs only dedicate a portion of their time to a given client, so they also receive only a portion of the compensation that a full-time CMO would generally command. If a company analyzes its needs carefully and accurately, then seeks out a fractional CMO who can fulfill those needs, that company should end up with a more financially efficient hire without having to sacrifice efficacy.

A fractional CMO is often just as qualified as their full-time counterpart, but because they’re either devoting less time to one company, or are spreading their expertise over multiple companies, those qualifications are obtained at a discount. 

And, since fractional CMOs aren’t employees, they won’t be expecting potentially costly benefits like health insurance or a company 401k plan. They also won’t be asking for any company equity.

The Responsibilities of a Fractional CMO Are Scalable

As we noted earlier, not all companies have an extensive array of marketing needs. That’s not to say that marketing isn’t important to them, but if over time, testing has proven that some marketing initiatives are essential, while others are either extraneous or worse, hiring on a more “a la carte” or limited basis may be a wise approach. There’s no reason to pay for a skillset that just isn’t needed.

Many CMOs are willing to scale their responsibilities to suit their clients’ needs, and their more limited commitment — along with the compensation that comes with it — may be a more efficient approach for many companies.

Motivation

Once a fractional CMO is brought on board, the proverbial clock is ticking. Most are hired for a specific amount of time and often with a specific goal in mind. Because their continued compensation is dependent on meeting these benchmarks within the contract term, they’ll be motivated to achieve them before the contract expires.

This is not to say that full-time CMOs lack motivation — most of them have it in abundance. There are situations, however, where the dynamics within a company can cause distractions that might lead one to lose sight of priorities.

The Drawbacks of Fractional CMOs


One Single Company Might Not Be the Only Priority

In many cases, fractional CMOs have other clients to look after, so one single company may not receive their full attention over the course of each week. Most of the time, this isn’t a major issue — marketing initiatives are usually delineated well in advance and their continued execution will be a front-burner priority for any CMO, whether full-time or fractional.

But things don’t always go as planned and pressing marketing emergencies can present themselves at inopportune moments. The speed at which a fractional CMO will respond may vary. This aspect isn’t a deal-killer, as there are plenty of fractional CMOs who are both flexible and conscientious enough to shift with a company’s needs. It just means the vetting process is important and a company needs to be very clear about its expectations in this area.

Hiring A Fractional CMO Might Not Be a Long-Term Solution

Let’s say a company hires a fractional CMO and things go well. Objectives are being reached, communication is great, and everyone is happy, but the initial contract between the company and its current fractional CMO is about to expire. Time to re-up? Hopefully so, but it’s not just the company’s choice. Though fairly rare, there are a variety of reasons why a fractional CMO might not want to extend the contract. Maybe the company just isn’t the right fit.

While hiring, onboarding, and training a fractional CMO is a less arduous process than bringing on a full-time counterpart, it still requires time and effort and shouldn’t be done casually. Also, whether full-time or fractional, when a CMO leaves it can often cause the same disruptions and lack of continuity, so any company should want to know about the CMO’s track record. For example, does the CMO have a list of satisfied clients willing to provide endorsements, or has the CMO’s wanderlust and desire for greener pastures made such a list hard to come by?

While it’s difficult to confirm that a potential candidate has a lackadaisical history — there aren’t many fractional CMOs who would be willing to attest to their deficiencies — proof of concept is important here.

Conclusion

Just as you might have expected, we won’t be declaring a clearcut winner. If a company is well-established, well-capitalized, and benefits from a wide array of marketing initiatives that demand a substantial amount of time, its interests may be best served by bringing on a full-time CMO.

By contrast, if that company is in more of a formative stage requiring a greater level of future flexibility, has more finite marketing needs or puts a high premium on paying only for the expertise and execution it really needs, hiring a fractional CMO may well be a better choice.

We’re curious about your thoughts on this subject. Do you find that the benefits of a fractional CMO outweigh those of a full-time counterpart or vice versa? Let us know — we’d love to hear from you.

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