The interim or fractional CMO role is an increasingly popular one. It allows you to build up experience in a range of different organizations and scenarios, gives you more flexibility, and promises fresh experiences and variety.
But is that way of working right for everyone?
To answer that question, we spoke to Avi Kumar, CEO and founder of KUWARE INC, an agency for fractional CMOs. We dived into how fractional CMOs can work, what kinds of projects they might work on, and what skills and personality traits you might need for fractional CMO success.
Originally an episode of CMO Convo, read on for a full write-up of what we discussed and find out if the interim/fractional CMO role is right for you!
- Avi's background and his fractional model
- Variety is the spice of an interim CMO's life
- Do you need new skills to be a fractional CMO?
- Choosing your clients as a fractional CMO
- The fractional CMO career path
Avi's background and his fractional model
Hi, Avi! Welcome to CMO Convo. We often talk about careers for CMOs, but the big question is, what comes next in your path as a CMO?
One thing that has come up quite a lot is this concept of being a fractional/interim/consultant CMO. But before we get into that, maybe you could introduce yourself to our readers?
I've been in the marketing world for 16 years. Before that, I had a career as a microprocessor architect, for Intel, Motorola, and IBM. I also did some work for Apple. But for the last 16 years, I've been focusing on marketing. The area of marketing I focus on is strategy for fractional CMOs. Top-level strategy as a fractional CMO is a big part of what we do.
Is there a certain approach to marketing that led you to take this fractional model? What led you to develop this?
We got on to this just five years back. Before that, we were like any other marketing agency. People came to us and asked for Facebook ads, or whatever it was. The problem was, clients were not asking for what they needed.
It was a little bit heart-wrenching for us having to say to people, “your website is not really the problem. You are the problem.” But they just want that website done. Initially, we politely started trying to get them to look at other things.
We realized that they needed some guidance on strategy. They were just picking a piece of marketing instead of looking at the overall picture. We had some clients who were firing their staff, and they were asking for advice.
We told them to manage their strategy and their ongoing marketing at the same time.
So, we became the agency who came up with the strategy and implemented it with our existing clients. Along the way, we ended up getting a client who had fractional CMOS, and we became their marketing agency, and we helped them with lead generation.
When I looked at the model I realized that we should add this fractional CMO service as a layer and charge for it as a strategy. Slowly, we moved to a point where we weren’t going to do implementation without strategy.
We made the strategy layer something that you have to buy. If you come to us with Facebook ads, we’re gonna tell you that we won’t do Facebook ads, because we don't know whether it works or not.
You’ve got to work with us on strategy first, and then we will do the Facebook ads. A fractional CMO becomes a requirement. The only exception we make is that, in some cases, smaller companies might not call it a fractional CMO.
This is because CMO is a scary term to them. You might call them, “Director of Marketing,’ but it’s essentially the same thing, it’s just delivered by maybe a more junior level person. The idea is that an executive-level marketing strategy is needed by every company. I'm a firm believer that every company needs this. Anybody who's doing marketing without a CMO person guiding them around the marketing strategy is actually wasting a lot of money.
Makes sense. Definitely. Having a consistent vision behind the marketing is always very important. Having that CMO role spread out across different levels of seniority can lead to very disparate ideas about the direction that a marketing strategy can take.
You've also been able to flip being an agency on its head, so you actually get to tell the clients what to do. For many people who have worked for an agency, that sounds like an absolute dream. We're sure they've all heard from clients, “No, this is not the right route”, despite evidence to the contrary.
Instead, you get to say, “No, this is the route you have to take.”
Variety is the spice of an interim CMO's life
You touched briefly on a couple of scenarios that a fractional CMO might be involved with, but what are the types of industries and business types that you mostly work with that you think most benefit from a fractional CMO stepping in?
We’re still relatively small, with just a half a dozen fractional CMOs or so. We are not specialized by verticals, at least not yet, but our CMOs are. So what we do is, we end up getting somebody who knows the industry.
That being said, there are certain kinds of businesses where having verticals makes a difference. One example would be what I will call a ‘brick and mortar’ style business. This is an old-style business where they have never done a formal marketing strategy. These are single-owner businesses doing millions of dollars in revenue, but it's just one person who started it.
Those businesses are great for marketing strategy because they have never done it formally. They don't know this concept of marketing as a planned strategy. It can be an asset, but they’ve never looked at it that way. With us, they realize that they’re getting a partner who's talking about revenue, and about margins. Usually. marketing agencies don't talk about those. But a CMO does.
They realize that this is going to be a different kind of marketing. They want to talk about their margins before they spend any marketing dollars. A CMO should be aware of these things. Another category to consider is startups who don't have money to get a full-time CMO yet, but they still need a CMO-level strategy.
They might not even be going through the next round of funding yet, so they need a senior enough person who can deal with the marketing side. Usually, if the CEO tries to do the job and they don’t have experience in marketing, they will miss many projections. Instead, they can get a fractional CMO. The cost will be lower, and then by the time they go to the next round of funding, they might have money to hire a full-time CMO.
But in some other cases, they will just still stick with a fractional CMO for a while because it still works. In other cases, we’ll actually help them find and interview the CMO. It's not our person, but we'll help them find the right CMO to put in that position. We then become the consultant CMO on the side.
Helping to find that CMO becomes kind of a self-serving thing because that person knows us. We were the ones who interviewed them. And when they need marketing services, they want to come to us.
The third category is anybody who's looking for hyper-growth. That's where the CMO can come in and really shine and come up with a complete turnaround strategy. They have the money and they want to do a bunch of stuff, including formal marketing. They see the value there.
And the ones that see it often stay with the fractional CMO model. It's only been five years since we started calling it a fractional CMO. The companies who like it want to stay with it. There's no reason for them to change that model.
It's interesting you talk about long-term partnerships because some people may have the misconception of a fractional CMO being a freelancer or a mercenary.
People have this idea that if you're coming in just to work on one small project for a while, you don't really have the opportunity to make a big impact on the business. But it sounds like in the right circumstances, you could have a real impact on long-term projects and company development.
Absolutely. In our case, with all our engagements, we don't hold anybody to contracts. But there is no engagement which is less than six months at least. And they always go longer because they’ve got the funding and they’ve moved on to the next stage, or they’ve decided to bring everything in-house because they have enough money now.
That's enough time to make a lot of difference. And even after six months, they might move away from a fractional CMO, but we will remain consultants for years. We will be the agency to help them. It’s definitely a long-term thing.
Yeah, but you've still got the opportunity to work in a variety of different companies at the same time as a production team. So, you've got that variety. Many marketers love having a variety of stuff to work on. They love having new challenges each day. That sounds like it'd be the perfect fit.
Being a fractional CMO, you've got these long-term projects you'll be working on, but you're not stuck in one industry all the time. You're not stuck on one problem all the time. You can step away and do other stuff.
That part is so exciting! The part I really like is that I can go in as a fractional CMO, and because I take on the projects myself directly, I can go in and pick the juiciest ones. The part I really like is that I get to know everything about that business as a fractional CMO. The phrase I like to use is, “I want to learn about your business enough that I can go and build a competing business.” I have no intention to compete with them, really.
But I want to learn enough about their business so that I could, hypothetically speaking, build competition. I just want to learn about business. I realized that this was a great marketing line for customers. I use it to show customers that I’m serious about their business.
It's a good approach. It's like how you hear about these chess grandmasters who play chess against themselves because they can't find any rivals. For a marketer in general, it’s a great idea to create a fictional rival to your company, so you can work out how you would tackle that competition.
It really favors someone who likes to learn a lot about an industry and different companies. Being a fractional CMO probably appeals to those personality types most of all.
With being an effective CMO, they got to have the marketing chops, because it's a marketing job, but I’ve found, in general, that those who come at marketing from a business standpoint have a really different skill set.
If you don't start producing something every month, you cannot get a result in a month's time. If they don't see results within a month, you're out. A CMO is actually the shortest living executive. That's been known forever. The disadvantage of having a fractional CMO is that, even if the business finds out they’re really bad, they’ve still got to give that person some months at least.
That’s bad for company morale, to hire a C-level person, and then find out they’re really bad in a month. In the case of a fractional CMO, they have to be really nimble to be able to justify their position within those first four weeks. I see that as a good thing. I don't see that as a risk.
If we are able to align within the first one or two months, they're going to stay with us for a long time. If not, why stay with that company, right? Just move on. That's why I don't do contracts. We ask them to think about six to nine months' engagements, and then I tell them to move on if it’s not working.
Do you need new skills to be a fractional CMO?
It sounds like you have to be fairly thick-skinned as well to be a fractional CMO, if the connection isn't there between your approach and your marketing strategies. You said that was the only skill that’s different from being a CMO, right?
Yeah, otherwise it's just all CMO skills. The most crucial CMO skill is always putting the business first. Business first, marketing second. Marketing is there to support the business, not the other way around.
One difference between fractional CMOs and CMOs, in general, is that we tend to focus less on jargon with the fractional CMO. These fancy terms change, but the meaning stays the same, right? Hypergrowth is just fast growth in the end.
We’ve found it’s better to be more practical and pragmatic. Don't just throw terms around. People want results, not terminology. Don't confuse them. Many times, we encourage our CMOs not to use terminology, even though that's the current trend. Just speak in general business terms. Why does this matter? That's probably the other difference. But I think CMOs do that too. CMOs are always looking ahead long-term, right? It's not about impressing somebody with the marketing terminology, it's more about actually getting results.
If you’re keeping it in-house, you've got the advantage that you can help people learn this terminology. You get to the point where you no longer have to develop your CEO’s knowledge of marketing.
But as a fractional CMO, you've got to be in there straight away with the plain language. As you said, you might be working with people who've never had formal marketing in the business. Being able to lay it out in very simple business-driven terms seems like a very good approach to take.
The other way we approach it is, we do the strategy session first. We find what we call ‘low-hanging fruit.' These are things that can be done immediately to show results. They’re things that will get immediate results while we have a plan in place for six to nine months.
When you come in as a CMO, you always think you’re going to plan this big thing out. But here, we always find something which will show results within the next six to eight weeks. That's another difference. You need to find something which will have immediate results while you're still planning on the longer term.
We always tell them that website development might take three months to do the whole messaging, but there might be a campaign that will get you immediate leads right now. So, let's do that while we work on the website. And as soon as they see those leads coming in, and the sales team is happy, they're going to let you do a lot more. So, it is important to be pragmatic. So I think that could be a little bit of a difference in some ways.
Choosing your clients as a fractional CMO
Speaking of pragmatism, when it comes to selecting clients to work with, have you dealt with any that are just lost causes? Are there cases where you just have to walk away?
Yeah, we have to rule out 80% and only take 20. I mean, that's the ideal rule. We’ve got to make a living, so there are times when we lower our standards, that's just a fact. But we try very hard.
We have had a case where a few doctors got together and they came up with a chat app. They wanted us to market that to the medical community.
My problem was, there are so many chat apps. Why would you build yet another chat app? But they kept on insisting that they’d built it, and it was going to be better. I kept on saying that we didn't want to market it.
I even told them that they were going to end up wasting money and time. I had questions about the whole business idea. But they had a pretty good budget, and we walked away from good money in that instance. That's one situation where the client is just not understanding that it’s not worth it.
The other example is when they feel that marketing is like magic. I keep using this phrase, "We don't breed unicorns. We’re workhorses. We will give you these horses there, and they will work hard for you every day.”
The closest to magic you get is probably those things that happen when you get lucky. But as an agency, that's not what we're doing. We're going to put things in place that will work again and again. That is what we do.
Some clients are not impressed. They're looking for someone who can work magic. They think we’re just talking standard marketing. That's the kind of client we stay away from. We will not sign them up. We do charge a hefty sum for the strategy. That's our other filter.
If they're not willing to spend money to get the strategy done before they get us monthly, then we filter them out. Because that means they’re just really not committed. They're looking for something very quick.
It’s always about the strategy first. There are clients that I would have taken several years back, without thinking twice. But now we will turn clients away if it's not a good match.
You have to reach a certain level before saying no to good money. When it comes to building up your bank of clients, like you said, you started as more of an implementation agency and evolved into that.
Let’s say someone was thinking about stepping into the fractional CMO role, what kind of bank of clients would they need? They need a certain level of clients in order to be sustainable. How would you go about building that bank of clients if you don't have one?
There are two ways of people getting into being a fractional CMO. One is that they could start moonlighting while they're working as a CMO for a business. Call yourself a fractional CMO, and set it up. The other option is to work with agencies. There are quite a few agencies now who actually have a group of CMOs under them.
It becomes the agency's problem to source the leads for them. So, that could be a closer or looser affiliation. We have a mixture of both. There are people who are employees. And there are those who are consultants, who obviously are only part-time. But as we grow more and more, we have more and more consultants going full time.
So, you can do this on your own, which is completely feasible, maybe start with a few clients in the beginning and get going just through your connections and network.
I don’t know about other agencies, but we have a systemized method, and the CMOs have to follow that. It’s not like we just hire CMOs and tell them to do the work. There is a strategy. We have a deck of 250 slides, and it gets filled with actual data about competition and everything. So, there is a background that they have to follow.
Clients get a little more consistency from our CMOs, and they will always look for these KPIs. They will always deliver on them. Some CMOs might say they want to be completely independent. They want to do things their way. In that case they should build everything independently.
But if they feel they are okay to work with the system, then they can work with an agency, and then they don't have to worry about looking for a client. The challenge of being independent is in both searching for a client and also carrying out the role of CMO.
Sometimes you get CMOs who are good at what they do, but they’re not good lead generators. They become great partners for us, and we bring them on under our umbrella.
We help them with the systems and tools. Other advantages, of course, include being in a group. There are some tech stack tools that become difficult to access as an individual. It might be too expensive for you to subscribe as an individual.
Of course, you can ask the client to subscribe, but they’re not always going to be willing to, and they’re expecting results.
Clients are going to be expecting you to produce some initial numbers for them, right? It’s good to be able to check things quickly for them, otherwise you’re just going to be asking them to buy every tool for you. That might not work. So, that's another way that being with an agency can help.
And having access to those kinds of tools as well allows you to do some more prep work before you actually step into the office. If you have to sit around for a few days waiting for them to get the license for ‘X’ in the tech stack, then you're wasting your clients' time.
But if you've already got access to those tools, not only can you hit the ground running, but you could do some preparation before you even step into the office.
Absolutely, and it helps with lead generation if we already have a few things ready for them in the first meeting.
Definitely. You can set up a proper pitch to potential clients by having that work prepared already.
The fractional CMO career path
So, in terms of a fractional CMO career path, what does that look like? Do people tend to be a fractional CMO for the rest of their career, or do they do it for a little while and go in-house somewhere? How does it normally work?
Most of the ones I've seen are people who have been at least a director of marketing or VP of marketing and they decide they don't want to keep working with this one company.
They want a little bit of variety and a little bit more freedom. As a fractional CMO, you can sometimes control things a little bit better. You're an outsider, so you can adjust your timing and have more flexibility. One of our fractional CMOs is a mom of two kids, so she works part-time. She sets a time, and it works really great for her. She's a great marketer. So, you get people who go into it for the flexibility.
The others are those who decide they want to grow this as a business. It's not a late-career retirement plan for them. We’ve had some CMOs who are very senior and have a lot of experience in very large companies.
Now, with those ones, it's a mixed bag. Because some of them are just so senior that they’re used to doing certain things in a certain way. Then there are others who are good CMOs, but their bank of knowledge doesn’t always match up with the clients, even though they have extremely good experience.
They can talk about the fashion industry, for example, and they might be very good at selling things which the average person doesn't know about. They have good internal tribal knowledge. But they might not have the skills to quickly change and adapt to other things.
So, that's one problem with really senior ones sometimes. Sometimes, to get around this, we pair two CMOs together: one who's more used to modern marketing, and one who's senior, and then they will work together.
The other thing which we found works very well is making our group of CMOs available as consultants to others. If they encounter a problem as a CMO, they can ask the group and find someone who knows how to deal with it. That makes us much more powerful as a team of CMOs rather than just one.
So, one potential CMO would be someone who’s senior level and they’ve decided that they’re done with corporate life. Or, it could be someone who’s on the rise and they want to work for smaller companies first.
It sounds like a really great opportunity for learning and development. If you're pairing up these two CMOs of different skill types and skill levels, then they're going to share knowledge as well.
Is that something you've sort of formalized as the process in your agency? Is that something you'd advise all fractional CMOs to look into?
Absolutely. We learned this while actually working with clients. Some clients had a senior-level CMO, but they still hired a fractional CMO. The reasoning was, our CMO needs help with automation. They don't know automation that well, but they know the industry very well.
So, that’s when a fractional CMO can come in handy. So that's no problem. Initially, we were worried about there being complications here. The fractional CMO might come in and start calling the shots, but we’re in the same meetings, and we’re sitting with them, we’re not under them.
We've learned that a CMO who knows the industry is usually comfortable partnering with somebody who knows other areas. They actually feel a kind of relief.
They don't have to worry about this whole new way of email marketing, for example. So, the partnership can work really well for that reason. You learn so much about different industries working with somebody who's very well known in their industry, they work for major corporations, and they get a lot from consulting with a team of CMOs. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
Sounds awesome. You get the opportunity to work in loads of different industries. So, should all people be fractional for a while? Is it for everyone? Is it something you can just jump into for a few years?
I think anybody who’s a good CMO could be a fractional CMO. I don’t believe there is that much of a difference in that way. Instead of saying fractional CMO versus CMO, I would turn it around and say that every company should have some level of CMO.
There is no company too small to have a CMO. And there is no company too big to say that they don't need a CMO. In terms of overall skill set, there is a major overlap, for sure. The difference is, you're a consultant, you’re an outsider doing the CMO job. But otherwise, it's the same.
Just to be clear, many of our competitors talk about fractional CMOs as being cheaper, because you’re spending less on their time. The reality is you're paying a fractional CMO more, especially if you put them full time.
I don't like to tell clients that it’s much cheaper, you just spend less time and in that way it makes you more efficient. But eventually, when you grow up bigger, and you don't think a fractional CMO can handle it for you, you need a full-time person.
And that full-time person could be ours, by the way. Just don't mislead clients by telling them fractional is cheaper. You're just working fewer hours.
So, that's a good thing for us to maybe end our discussion because that message at the end was very clear. There is a market out there for fractional CMOs.
Anyone who's out there thinking about becoming a fractional CMO, there's definitely a market out there for them.
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