With apologies for the overly militaristic use of analogies…..
So I’ve been thinking about Staging on client projects over the last few months, and explained if in a few presentations using this image of how a fission bomb works:
which is basically along the lines of: two sub-critical masses of fissile material are imploded by conventional explosive in a device lined with a neutron-reflective material, causing the the fissile material to go prompt-critical – ie create an immediate self-sustaining chain reaction, with explosive power orders of magnitude greater than the conventional explosive used to trigger it.
And this gives us a fairly forced analogy to explain how a great idea (fissile material) that crossed over into popular culture has an impact exponentially greater than the conventional explosive (advertising) that had catalysed it. As analogies go, it’s probably better for shock value than, say, trying to explain that if you rate ads on a scale of 1-10, then it only works if that scale is logarithmic (a Richter scale rather than a Millward Brown scale).
When we think about it through the lens of planning for a predictable series of unpredictable events though, it becomes more interesting. The Manhattan Project, the original fission bomb designers, knew that nuclear weapons were theoretically possible before the US even entered World War 2. It took the combined brains of most of the world’s most brilliant physicists and mathematicians to calculate the high energy hydrodynamics equations to work out what materials to use and in what order (the linear part of this process happening in a couple of nano-seconds). Or, the combined brains of all but one – Edward Teller decided at an early stage of the project that fission bombs were simply an engineering challenge, of manufacturing pure enough (‘weapons grade’) fissionable material, and focused his time on the potential to create weapons powered by nuclear fusion. Given the challenges that marketers have experienced trying to create even the ‘fission’ concept – the non-linear cultural explosion of a brand idea through a population – it is worth thinking about what he found.
Fission weapons were outdated within six or seven years of their invention, as Teller and Stanislaw Ulam developed the concept of Staging - the Staged Radiation Implosion model, or thermonuclear weapon. When i started looking for examples of staging non-linear impacts over a compressed period of time, there seemed to be some analogies relevant to us, particularly as I’ll come on to, in the development of ad-funded programming or similar programme of branded content with high upfront development costs. Which is a roundabout way of saying, bear with the science geekery…..
The basic principles of thermonuclear weapons are as follows:
Stage 1 – Implosion of sub-critical quantities of plutonium 239 to trigger a fission reaction. The principles of the fission bomb are simply the first stage to catalyse an exponentially larger reaction
Boost 1 - Deuterium gas in the centre of the core is compressed and heated by the fission reaction to induce fusion, which increases the speed and efficiency of Stage 1.
Stage 2 - X-ray radiation from the initial reaction is focused by beryllium lenses to compress the Lithium Deuteride fusion fuel to a fraction of its original density – causing deuterium nucleii to fuse, creating a fusion reaction. As the X-ray radiation from stage 1 travels at speeds orders of magnitude higher than the kinetic energy released by the Stage 1 fission explosion, the structure is still in its original form by this point.
Boost 2 – A core of plutonium inside the fusion fuel is also compressed to critical density, and the ensuing secondary fission reaction heats and speeds up the Stage 2 reaction
Stage 3 – a blanket of (relatively) inert and cheap to produce Uranium 238 wrapped around the Lithium Deuteride core gains neutrons from the fusion reaction, and is heated by the previous reactions to several million degrees, unstabilising it enough to trigger a further fission reaction. Average explosive power of a thermonuclear weapon tends to be 50% derived from this final stage – the result of multiple previous staged implosions to create the esoteric conditions under which a cheap and easy to refine isotope can provide extreme energy.
So the ‘value’ in this chain is not in any single part, it is in their sum. More importantly, it is in the understanding of high energy hydrodynamics of a complex system to ensure that the conditions are created to allow reactions to happen. And even more importantly, that they happen at the precise fraction of a nanosecond before the next stage is engulfed in an exponentially expanding ball of plasma hotter than the centre of the sun.
So anyway, I’ve been at a couple of branded content events recently, and the question of predicting success and ROI from heavily front-loaded investment in programme production came up. As they should do, when the actual content a brand can feature in a programme under OFCOM regulation make it difficult to deliver value on air. This leaves a brand investing in creating something editorially impressive enough to be commissioned, with very little predictable success to show for before it airs. Kind of like the idea of using a first stage explosive powerful enough to destroy a city simply to compress three strips of metal down to a smaller size.
In this analogy, the actual AFP is Stage 2. Without stages 1 and 3, the AFP is simply the creation of the ideal programme to sponsor, with the brand existing primarily within bumpers. The Stage 1 energy is derived from social channels’ involvement in the creation of the programme itself, catalysed by conventional paid media to provide initial impetus to the reaction. This focuses attention on a pre-existing cultural object which already has brand ownership through its association with brand fans’ participation in the creation. Linear transfer of attention from stage 1 to stage 2 is focused though linear channels – bought media to amplify fan reaction as part of the tune-in campaign to Stage 2.
But so far this is only playing to fans – Stage 3, over 50% of the value – involves the rapid transfer of attention from the on air idea to a wider audience than actually watch the show – it relies on social transmission of cultural interest from fans and from viewers to catalyse the attention of the wider population – to create a third stage critical mass.
Clearly this is all wildly ambitious for an advertiser funded programme, but the key in thinking about value in a staged model is in thinking about the hydrodynamics of mass attention – thinking about how non-linear effects are achieved, but more importantly how they are compressed in time in such a way as to catalyse the next stage. This is fundamental in thinking about WHAT the roles of owned social channels are in inspiring participation publicly, and what those of paid media are in providing the lenses to focus catalysts at the speed and at the level of compression required to ignite the following stage.