For many businesses, the global pandemic has led to uncertainty around revenues and budgets, and shifted priorities overnight. The thought of going back to an office, enduring long commutes, spending time away from family, and a general dissatisfaction with work is resulting in The Great Resignation. According to a recent Microsoft study, more than 40% of the global workforce is considering leaving their employer this year. With less resources at the ready, significant hiring challenges in a tight market for top talent, but plenty of reasons to continue to invest in marketing, this perfect storm is set to shift the in-house model in favor of fractional leadership – or, in other words, outsourced support.
I’ve spent the better part of the past two decades serving in senior marketing leadership roles with small- to mid-size consulting firms. These firms and many other businesses recognize the need for marketing to increase revenue. However, few truly understand what marketing means (no, it’s not just your website!) or see significant value in branding. After all, marketers just make things look pretty, right?
Then, of course, there’s the age-old confusion between marketing – aka brand building / profile-raising / demand generation (pick your favorite!) – and business development (or sales) – where the rubber meets the road in building customer relationships to generate revenue. Hint: These are not one and the same, even though the terms are often used interchangeably. In my experience, an integrated approach in which the two support each other is the key to real success. However, that’s a subject for another post…
Put it all together and it becomes apparent there is a need to engage someone with the expertise to not only develop and execute a plan for effectively operating the marketing function – strategy, processes, team, budget, etc. – but someone who also has the vision and know-how to simultaneously establish and/or elevate the brand. In the case of a business with growth aspirations, think of it as a pit crew at the Indy 500 changing the tires in mere seconds, so the car can continue to speed around the track.
The point I want to focus on here, though, is the decision to make or buy this expertise. If you’re a business leader convinced you need to hire someone in a senior marketing capacity to fuel growth, how critical is it for this person to be embedded in the organization as a full-time employee? As the emergence of new variants continue to strip away opportunities for in-person interactions, can we really espouse the belief in “culture” as the main argument to hire in-house? What if you could get more value by engaging an outside marketing expert?
It may be a bold proclamation, but for many start-ups and small- to mid-size organizations, fractional marketing leadership is the answer.
As I mentioned, I have spent nearly 20 years in-house with professional services firms, most recently as a VP of Marketing. As a marketing leader, I was a proponent of hiring in-house roles when certain aspects of the function needed to rapidly scale in response to strategy shifts and subsequent significant increases in workload, but my teams always included a mix of internal and external resources for the reasons I’m about to outline.
In each firm, I faced considerable organizational challenges: form relationships, build trust, navigate interpersonal politics, consider the firm’s history, etc. It’s not to say these “intangibles” aren’t factors for a consultant – I’m a huge advocate of understanding the audience, particularly from an intuitive perspective, which I’ll expand on in a future post – however, there is much less emphasis on and expectation of an outsider to spend as much time and effort on those factors. So, a fractional leader can be laser focused on the task at hand to deliver results on time and on budget.
Another key benefit to the business is hiring someone who has already done it and continues to do it for a lot of other and similar organizations – conflict-free, of course. You immediately gain access to a wide range of branding and marketing experience vs. a more limited perspective of someone who has only worked in-house for one or two other firms. It’s essentially the rule Malcolm Gladwell writes about in The Outliers – the theory of practicing something for 10,000 hours to be deemed an expert – with the competitive advantage of benchmarking baked right in.
There is a perception, though, that marketing consultants are too costly, or worse, inefficient. Having been on the other side of the table, I agree there are some not-so-great options out there. And, yes, a start-up generally has less budget to allocate, but there are creative ways to structure branding and marketing plans to make them more affordable. Determined to do it all yourself? Spoiler alert: You won’t get it right and it will be time-consuming and more costly to “fix” in the long run.
For small- to mid-size businesses, there’s an incredible value to engaging a fractional leader. It eliminates the costs associated with full-time employment. There’s also a limited commitment, which seems to be more palatable for the fleeting nature of today’s environment. For instance, look to a fractional leader to create a 90-day kickstart program and then reevaluate ongoing support to map to quarterly priorities.
What's the best reason? Fractional leaders solve complex problems and truly want to do just that; after all, there is no better way to grow your business than by doing great work for clients.
In taking time to reflect on my career, the increasing appeal of serving in a fractional marketing leadership capacity became crystal clear. It led me to found Medium Brand Consulting, a brand strategy & communications firm that employs an integrated approach to help clients tell great stories and accelerate growth. I look forward to sharing more of my story and experience here through The Marketing Medium.
What’s your view on fractional marketing leadership? Is it a viable solution? Will the impact of the pandemic lead more businesses to rethink their approach to marketing resources? Share your perspective in the comments.