How to Engage Effectively with a Fractional CMO

Alan Gleeson
8 min readJan 11, 2024
Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

Introduction — Working with a Fractional CMO

Having worked for 10+ years as a Fractional CMO (and B2B marketing consultant) with over 50 clients (primarily for VC-backed B2B SaaS companies) I have significant experience as to the pros and cons of the approach. This article is designed to help those considering hiring a fractional one ensure the engagement is set up for success.

A Fractional CMO (sometimes called a Virtual CMO) often “sits on the bus” for a year at most, and B2B SaaS startups take many years to go from ideation through securing Product Market Fit to Scale-Ups before an exit hopefully. Hence, in most instances, the consultant will often join a company with an existing function (or more likely one marketing person), that has been ‘doing some marketing’ already.

In this short blog, I outline some common patterns, some areas for potential conflict and finally, I outline some ways to mitigate these upfront.


One of the most frustrating things for me working as a Fractional CMO has always been the ‘execution gap’. You identify areas to improve but the resultant dependencies, and limited delivery capability mean they often don’t get done or they don’t get done in a timely enough fashion. It also means that the client is not obtaining the value they should by actioning the insights you’ve identified from your analysis.

Most of my fractional engagements started with audits — ranging from speaking to marketing colleagues to analyzing Google Analytics (GA4) and Google Search Console, as well as reviewing ‘the CRM’ to try and understand the underlying business.

An audit will undoubtedly uncover lots of issues and thus the list of additional “things to be done” can quickly get pretty long, adding to the backlog of the existing list. Which leads me neatly on to the next point — resourcing.


A fractional engagement is usually driven by dissatisfaction with the status quo. Perhaps senior management feels the existing marketing individual (or team) is not delivering. Perhaps the fractional CMO is being hired to fill a short-term leadership gap.

However, the source of the dissatisfaction is often a more basic issue — resourcing.

Most B2B SaaS marketing functions I have worked with (especially in Europe) tended to be chronically under-resourced when set against growth expectations. A common “issue” is thus resourcing and band-width rather than due to competency or performance issues. Truth be told, marketing is a very complicated function despite our collective desires to reduce it to a much more simpler one. Ensuring adequate resourcing in the function is probably the most effective thing that can be done to deliver on expectations.


An obvious linked issue from generating a long list of new “things to be done”, is that there is an implicit criticism of the incumbent working in the marketing function.

As an external freelancer looking to add value, you’ve just “shone a light” on lots of things that you now deem “need to be done” — in a sense, things that they “should have done” already.

This criticism is often misguided.

With short term or fractional engagements, you’ll lack the broader context — perhaps they tried them before but they didn’t work, perhaps they are on a long-list or perhaps they were previously considered and discounted.

Similarly as a generalist function marketers tend to focus on the areas that they are more comfortable with, whereas the incumbent may have focused on areas more closely aligned with their area of specialism.

Hence, it is important as a Fractional CMO to communicate to the lead stakeholder that any marketing audit will uncover lots of areas to improve. It is normal.


Prioritization is invariably a key part of the engagement.

The list of demands on the marketing function is usually significant and a common challenge for those working in marketing is triaging incoming “jobs”.

As “everyone” knows how to ‘do marketing’ the list is often prioritized by senior management demands, especially when there is no leader of the function. This scenario is very typical and one on which the marketing person is essentially an ‘order taker’.

Hence the attempt of an external CMO, to “add value” can put them directly at odds with the marketing team — precisely the people you need to be supporting.

Again, any tension can be addressed with an open communication that discusses this upfront. A more likely scenario is the senior management team may struggle to adapt — when the marketing team cease to act as ‘order takers’ and instead prioritize themselves based on their assessments.


In recent years, as the tech stack matured, marketing was often the main area where many SaaS applications were deployed. By way of an example, Scott Brinker’s 2023 Marketing Technology Landscape lists over 11,000 solutions!

As a result, the demands on the function became even more challenging.

In the early years, it is very much a case of needing adaptable ‘generalists’ who can figure stuff out.

But it is not easy.

And with the demands placed on the function there will always be too much to do and too little time. In the early years, when marketing budgets are tight you’ll often find pretty junior and inexperienced people working in these functions. The sum of their real-world marketing experience may be from their current role, and thus an external perspective can be hugely valuable in helping them think differently.

Of course, these same martech tools also create additional jobs for the marketing team (as anyone who has run a site audit with aHrefs or SEMRush will testify), so now you have a SaaS application adding to the marketing team’s workload on top of the additional demands resulting from me the Fractional CMO knocking around looking to add value.

So where does all this leave us?


Knowing the above, several courses of action need to be taken to avoid the inevitable fallout that can often occur between a marketing team and an external consultant. The following represent some of the areas to think about.

1- Stakeholder Management — Discuss the Process Upfront

It is worth flagging the above context with both the hiring manager (often the CEO) as well as the marketing executive so they understand this inherent conflict from the get-go. Placing the engagement as a collaboration helps offset this idea of finger pointing. The Fractional CMO will usually be reporting back to the CEO, who will have hired them and thus the above context with all its nuances needs to be clear. Otherwise, it could quickly descend into a blame game in which there will be no winners.

2- Ensure there is Ruthless Prioritization

It is all too easy as a Fractional CMO to fire off emails ad nauseam, as to things you’ve uncovered that need to be fixed (and will thus “improve things”)

You will feel happy you are delivering value but you run the risk of ‘overwhelming the recipient’ of the emails making matters worse and creating even more uncertainty.

Instead, I’d argue that your job as a Fractional CMO is to triage these and to help to “manage the list” by focusing on those activities likely to deliver the largest return (while also considering the dependencies and the work that is being created as a result).

This is harder than firing off emails, but is more valuable.

3- Make Sure There is Someone to Execute

A Fractional CMO needs someone to execute their findings (they’ll be too expensive to do it themselves).

Ideally, this person is the incumbent in the marketing function, who has a bias for action and a strong delivery capability. They’ll already likely be stretched so ensuring they are comfortable with the extra demands will be vital. Similarly, the engagement can help identify skills gaps which can then be addressed via training or additional hiring. Hiring a Fractional CMO without the capacity to deliver is a major red flag. If there is no marketing incumbent, that needs to be addressed up-front.

4- Think High Level — Stay Strategic

A Fractional CMO should also “get out of the weeds” after the initial audit. Depending on the requirements they should be acting more strategically and assessing resourcing, budgets, etc

  • The most value will come from the high-level concepts.
  • What should our budget be?
  • What should the composition of the team be?
  • Are we focused on the ‘right areas’?
  • Are we prioritizing effectively?
  • Who can deliver on specialist tasks? (Ideally they’ll have a rolodex of freelance contacts)

As mentioned above, a typical insight at a pre Series B/C startups is that the marketing function has been under-resourced and is thus in need of investment. Without a delivery capacity the plans won’t mean a thing.

5- Agree on the Outputs In Advance

The outputs for the engagement is also a key discussion point that should be discussed up-front.

In my early days as a fractional CMO, I had a tendency to associate quantity with quality.

I’d thus create detailed reports, as evidence of the quality of my work.

However, this was the last thing most time-pressed stakeholders wanted.

In more recent years, I’ve relied more on “two-pagers” accompanied by Loom videos. However, the key point here is that this topic needs to be discussed and agreed upon upfront to ensure alignment.

6- Discuss Accountability

Someone has to call the shots.

In the absence of a full-time C-suite marketing leader the marketing executive may have been acting as the leader of the function (although in reality they will often have functioned as an order-taker as I alluded to earlier).

Will the incumbent’s authority be undermined for the duration of the fractional engagement?

Is it really fair to bring someone in for a short time-frame who dictates what needs to be done but does not live with the consequences?

Again, it is worth discussing this topic up-front to ensure there is decent alignment.

7- Discuss How Success will be Measured?

All of which leads neatly on to the last point. Marketing activities rarely pay off immediately (save for some exceptions like paid acquisition).

Hence, deliverables should be clear in advance so that expectations are aligned. Those looking for a quick fix or a growth hacker who will “transform lead generation capability” within a few days of an engagement will be disappointed.

But it also creates an inherent challenge.

How can we effectively assess the impact of the Fractional CMO’s contributions if the incentives are not aligned?

After all, the fractional CMO is ‘creating jobs now’ and getting paid for this work, but the results will be dependent on how strong the execution is and are likely to materialize after they have long-departed. Whether you can even measure their specific individual contributions is a moot point.

Instead, it is easier to discuss these elements up front to ensure alignment.


The market for Fractional C-Suite executives has exploded in recent years, but it is still a nascent industry. Having worked with over 50 B2B SaaS companies as a Fractional CMO in recent years, I’ve experienced the inherent challenges the engagement can bring. By ensuring all sides understand the dynamic, clients can ensure they get better value from future fractional engagements.

About the Author

Alan Gleeson is the CEO and Co-Founder of Contento, a B2B SaaS content platform (Headless CMS) that helps B2B and SaaS companies scale via a best-of-breed website. He is also the founder of Work With Agility a B2B Marketing Consultancy specialising in Fractional CMO engagements.

This article originally appeared on my Work With Agility blog



Alan Gleeson

CEO and Co-Founder of Contento — a modern Headless CMS. B2B and Tech Marketing Consultant. Based in London. Passion for #SaaS .