'Loving their lives'
Most assignments to Chief Outsiders come via peer or private-equity referrals; the company also markets its own services through various thought leadership and online content activities. The firm's partners and associates also bring in business through their personal networks. Its marketers who get placed receive a percentage of the firm’s deal with the company; with partners earning larger percentages and bonuses than newer-arriving associates.
“Our top people are making way more than they ever made in corporate America,” Saxby said. “Some people are making about the same, but they’re loving their lives. They love to be able to say 'I'm interested in this project, but I don’t want that one.' They can focus on the projects they are passionate about. They love to jump in and make big things happen. And they get to do it again and again.”
Some observers tend to see the role of fractional marketers as a kind of glorified freelance—or marketers who turn to consulting while keeping another eye on the full-time job market. Collections of them provide an umbrella and a platform. “I suspect that [fractional CMOs] have different motivations and desired outcomes,” said Sanderson. “For example, I believe there are some that are very happy with occasional consulting work, and then there are those who are still in active search mode for a full-time role, and being a fractional CMO provides stop-gap employment and income, and keeps them contemporary in the market without the hassle of setting up their own LLC or consulting company.”
Saxby says turnover among Chief Outsiders’ roster is quite low, and standards to be accepted as a member are high. All 110 of the marketers currently participating previously worked as a VP of marketing or higher at an operating company–many are Fortune 500 veterans. Saxby himself is a former VP of marketing at Imperial Sugar and served in brand manager roles at Coca-Cola Co., Kellogg Co. and Frito-Lay, and said he was inspired to start Chief Outsiders from results of the work he’d since done in bankruptcy turnarounds.
“I realized I could take the strategic marketing leadership I’d learned in these big companies, and when I applied that to a mid-sized company, boy, could I make a difference,” he said. “I was never able to double the size of a Coca-Cola—but I could make a very big difference at these smaller size companies.”
The power of the tribe
Every two weeks, Chief Outsiders’ marketers meet via Zoom to discuss assignments and share their learnings and needs. This practice fosters a kind of accelerated learning rarely available to marketers in full-time assignments, its participants say, while assuring Chief Outsiders can deploy the right people to solve the problems of its clients (the company also monitors net promoter score surveys from client companies to assure the cultural fit is right, Saxby said).
“We have 100 or so CMOs to draw from for experience, so if I go in and work on a particular area of marketing, and I’m not a branding specialist, I have access to all these minds who are branding specialists,” said Scott Koerner, a Chief Outsiders partner. “There are a multitude of benefits from a program like this. That’s why I became what I became there—because of that opportunity.”
Koerner, whose previous full-time work included a stint as a CMO of the footwear company Shoes for Crews and the developer of Michaels Stores’ e-commerce business, served a 20-month stint addressing the e-commerce crisis at K&N as a Chief Outsiders representative, working alongside K&N’s full-time CMO, JR Badian.
K&N’s issues involved a website update that according to Koerner was not executed properly, making navigation difficult for customers who use the website to read up on K&N’s 10,000-plus lineup of model-specific aftermarket air filters, oil filters, intakes and performance products before buying them online, or in auto parts stores. Sales had cratered “dramatically,” Koerner said, but stabilized in about 90 days before growing again. The rest of his assignment involved a strategy to maintain performance, and onboarding a full-time digital specialist to take over following his departure.
Badian said he would not likely consider a fractional career himself, citing a preference for setting and executing strategy over the long term, rather than what he sees as the project-based assignments and short-term tenures more typical of fractional CMOs. But for K&N, a fractional executive with specialized experience proved a good solution to a challenging issue.
“The truth is there is a lot to be said about tribal knowledge, having people who have contextually relevant experience,” Badian said. “If you look at the medical field—some physicians are general MDs, yet many have specialties. Well, because there are so many fields within marketing these days—brand, paid media, technology, data, pricing, innovation, to name a few—by default, many CMOs have really become general marketing practitioners.”
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Philippe Harousseau, who had a long career as a marketer with companies such as Unilever, Materne North America and Shiseido, joined the Chief Outsiders’ roster weeks ago, saying he was anxious to draw on his experience to shape strategy for smaller players and that he had turned down a full-time CMO opportunity to do so.
“When I joined, I had heard about the power of the tribe, and being able to tap into that power—it’s not a selling point, it’s a gem,” he said. “Being a CMO can be a bit lonely sometimes—I’ve been there. In this concept, you don’t feel lonely because you have 110 people. We all know how to shape a vision, but we all have different specialties. That can make you smarter. It complements your skills.”
Are CMOs becoming extinct?
In some ways, the trend toward fractional executives mirrors the change in the way younger people are looking at their careers—as a series of specialized projects on their own terms, or “gig work”—brought about by the influence of technology and accelerated by changes due to the pandemic. Those same forces have tended to bring about the shortening tenures of full-time CMOs.
Debate remains, however, as to the degree to which this is a good thing for marketing.
Many fractional executives will say that change is already such to have rendered the “full-stack” CMO a relic of the past. “It may have existed 10 or 20 years ago, but it doesn’t exist today,” Eckman said. “What I have observed is that CEOs hire someone they think is a great marketing leader and they may have a skill set that’s aligned to the particular CEO and their needs. But over the course of the business cycle, those needs change and that CMO just doesn’t have the skillset to pivot to the new business needs. The speed of change has accelerated, especially in these last few years.”
Mann, the former corporate CMO now at recruiter Raines, said that both companies and marketers must rethink their approaches amid change, and reestablish the prominence of marketing in business—without necessarily surrendering marketing to a kind of freelance work or sending a signal to companies that undermarketing is an easily solved problem.
“A great CMO can drive profitable top-line results and fly at a number of altitudes in one day—but that means having to speak the language of the C-suite and also having a depth of understanding of digital,” Mann said.
Companies need to address a business culture that has de-emphasized the role of marketers and estranged top executives and top marketers, she said. A global mapping study undertaken by Raines last year revealed that only 44% of CMOs are considered members of their firm’s executive teams; 23% of CMOs feel their CEO doesn’t understand their job; and 21% feel they are not sure they are aligned with their CEOs on key metrics to measure performance.
“The real killer,” she added, “is that 50% of newly appointed CMOs have non-marketing backgrounds, typically from strategy.”
Marketers, too, need to up their game by applying their skills and creativity to align with their CEO’s vision, even as that undergoes change—and learning to aggregate consumer behavior information that has blown itself across departments in the digital boom. This will help create a culture of management and marketing cooperation that will help companies succeed, and bring some stability back to the increasingly peripatetic careers of marketing pros, Mann said.
“I think everyone wants to belong somewhere,” she said. “The older I get, the more I realize culture-building is a part of the conversation than I might have thought when I was younger.”
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