The Fractional CMO Fake-Out: How to Spot an Unqualified CMO

by Debra Andrews | June 29, 2023

In some areas of life, it’s OK to “fake it till you make it.” There’s no harm in pretending you’re outgoing when you’re quaking in your boots at that cocktail party. But when your business is about to entrust your finite, hard-won marketing budget to a Fractional Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), you don’t want to partner with an imposter.

Sadly, the marketing industry is teeming with professionals who claim to be Fractional CMOs but lack the credentials and experience to warrant that title—or the ability to deliver the measurable results that a true CMO can.

It’s a troubling trend that harms the marketing industry and the clients we serve.

No Credentials? No Problem.

When you need someone to audit your books, you look for a CPA. If you need an attorney, you hire someone who holds a JD degree and has passed the bar exam. The plumber who fixes your clogged drain and the teacher who educates your children need to be licensed. And thankfully, the engineers who design bridges need the proper certifications.

But you don’t need a degree, license, certification, or anything else to declare yourself a Fractional CMO. And of course, whenever there is a low barrier to entry, there is an influx of supply. So with demand for these professionals at an all-time-high, everyone and their brother has become a Fractional CMO.

I don’t make this statement out of fear of competition. There are plenty of legitimate, qualified Fractional CMOs and more than enough business for all of us. This isn’t about trying to squelch competition. It’s about making sure we don’t devalue the marketing profession and ensuring clients get what they believe they’re paying for.

Batting .100

To test my theory that there are a lot of Fractional CMO wannabees, I conducted a very unscientific study: I did a LinkedIn search on this term and checked out 10 of the resulting profiles.

  • Only 1 out of 10 had held a CMO title before, either in-house or at an agency.
  • 5 out of 10 didn’t come close to having the experience and skillsets to serve as a CMO. Not even in the ballpark. (Unless you think selling real estate for a couple of years or dabbling in communications qualifies someone to act in the capacity of a CMO.)

Several of the people I considered unqualified had some terrific marketing experience, but only in one of the specialized disciplines that modern marketing requires, like digital marketing or SEO. I’m sure they’d be good fractional hires for those roles, but not as a CMO. It would be like hiring a plumber to design and build your entire home; he’s qualified in his area of expertise, but he can’t serve as the architect and general contractor.

My inbox also tells me that too many people are jumping on the Fractional CMO bandwagon just to command a high hourly rate. I regularly get emails from companies offering a quick training program that will turn the recipient into a Fractional CMO who can start billing out at $200-350 per hour in just 30 days.

What’s the Harm?

Right now, some of you are shaking your heads and insisting that you can’t compare marketing to a profession like law or accounting, where there are black-and-white credentials you can’t operate without. I respectfully disagree.

It’s true that marketing isn’t governed by legal and regulatory requirements. If a professional does a poor job developing and executing your strategic marketing plan, they won’t be fined or jailed. But if they convince you to hire them under the false pretense that they’re qualified to serve as a Fractional CMO, they WILL do harm to your company.

Consider the trickle-down effect of inadvertently falling prey to a fake Fractional CMO:

  • Instead of out-growing and out-pacing your competition, you’ll watch your revenues stagnate, or worse.
  • Your cash flow will suffer as you throw good marketing dollars after bad, investing in the wrong marketing talent, technology, and execution.
  • You won’t have the financial resources to invest in new products, markets, or channels.
  • But you won’t have the healthy balance sheet needed to attract lenders or investors.
  • Your product development efforts will come to a halt.
  • You may have to let good people go.
  • And that will cause more good people to jump ship out of fear.

If all the above sounds like an overstatement, I can assure you it’s not. I’ve seen middle market companies waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing that delivered no impact, and it had a devastating effect on their finances, their operations, and their competitive position.

Separating the Truly Qualified from the Fakes

As a company led by highly experienced Fractional CMOs who help B2B companies drive revenue growth, we know what it takes to act in that capacity. While there is no uniform set of qualifications, Marketri sees the following as must-haves for a CMO you can entrust with your marketing budget and goals:

  • Steadily progressive marketing roles, culminating in leading a full marketing team (whether in-house and/or fractional resources)
  • Proven success in developing go-to-market strategies and strategic marketing plans that accelerate growth
  • Experience developing and overseeing the execution of marketing plans that cover the full spectrum of approaches that modern marketing requires
  • Prior senior leadership roles, with a seat at the C-suite table
  • Full budget authority over how a company allocates its marketing resources
  • Experience standing up a high-performing marketing function, matching the right talent with the company’s needs and objectives
  • A deep understanding of how every aspect of marketing should integrate and ladder up to support the business’ strategy and goals
  • In the B2B world, experience in your sector or industry
  • Experience developing strategies, measuring their ROI, and learning how to pivot because the actual delivery doesn’t produce the necessary return to justify the resources spent to execute it
  • And yes, prior experience as a business’s CMO (because you shouldn’t pay for on-the-job training)

That description sounds a lot like someone we know well: one of Marketri’s Fractional CMOs Jen Marino. Jen progressed through several marketing director and VP roles at Fortune 100 companies before becoming the Chief Marketing and Customer Officer at a multi-billion-dollar bank, gaining all the qualifications and experience in the above laundry list.

If there’s a common thread here, it’s that you can’t operate as a Fractional CMO unless you follow a career path that involves enough time, enough experience across a broad swath of marketing responsibilities, and enough diversity of skillsets to direct a company’s strategic marketing. There’s no shortcut, no matter what the next e-blast to hit your inbox tells you.

What’s the Takeaway?

If you’re a marketing professional, don’t slip on the Fractional CMO title like it’s the latest fashion. Present your credentials and capabilities in a truthful light. If you want to provide fractional services but haven’t done CMO-level work yet, focus on your specific areas of expertise until you gain the right experience to truly serve as a Fractional CMO.

If you’re a company looking to hire a Fractional CMO, don’t get caught up in the hype. As with any major decision, do your due diligence. Instead of taking a marketer’s claims at face value, dig deep and ask probing questions. If you do your homework, you’ll end up with a senior-level professional who can develop an effective go-to-market strategy, stand up your marketing function, deploy the right marketing technology, scale your marketing based on best practices, measure and optimize your execution, and truly move the needle on revenue growth.

Be sure to check out our many resources on the Fractional Marketing approach, including 5 Questions to Ask Before Considering Fractional Marketing and How to Choose a Fractional CMO Agency. Or schedule an introductory call with me.