advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The love story of an engine and a compass.

under water photo

Photo by Pete Johnson on Pexels.com

“A flower is basically a weed with an advertising budget.”

Rory Sutherland

Years ago, I was lucky enough to work with two giants in the advertising industry. Out of respect, I am not going to name them because they would want it that way. One was a suit, the other a creative. They were both very impressive. They liked each other. They also used to fight a lot. Invariably, the argument would be a clash about research and proof on the one hand and the power of imagination on the other.

This created a strange tension in the agency. At any time, there could be two answers for any situation or problem. This tension made the agency work. It created a bizarre and slightly uncomfortable equilibrium. It also gave the agency energy and the idea that there were always multiple solutions to any brief.

It instilled in me this idea of being open to solutions. Answers are not pre-ordained and can come from anywhere. Ideas can semi belong to one person and half belong to another. Ideas are not very fond of rules and restrictions.

I mention this because lately, I have noticed two strange things in our business.

Firstly, rules, have begun to crop up before there is even an idea to judge. I will hear conversations about how something is going to happen long before we even know what is going to happen. It has to be mobile, digital or if you are doing a film it has to be this long or that way. And we still have no idea of what we are doing yet. It is what I call putting the accuracy before the horse. The idea should come first.

Secondly, right now, advertising seems to be made up of absolute entrenched positions. Advertising’s strength has always been about being able to look at a problem from multiple perspectives. Like the suit and the creative I mentioned earlier, the different points of view created friction but also made the work better. When it comes to the messy business of having ideas, deciding there is only one right way is the easiest and fastest way to be wrong. The trick is to stay open to ideas and possibilities. That is what a creative should do. That is his or her job.  Trying to have some ironclad formula, or methodology, will only give you what you already have. There are some very polarised views at the moment. It feels like many believe they have to back just one horse.

The horses names are accuracy and attraction. And my money is on a dead heat.

Before you place your bets, do yourself a favour and read Ian Leslie’s brilliant article in the New Statesman. https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/internet/2018/07/death-don-draper.

It shows the schism that is emerging in our business far more eloquently than I ever could.

From a creative perspective it really does feel like this thinking is pushing meaningless choices or creating filters and channels long before there is an idea. There is often a large discussion about accuracy and very little about attraction. To use Rory Sutherland’s analogy, these days we talk a lot about where the weeds should go because that can be measured. Speaking to many creatives, the flower can often be an afterthought.

I guess the issue is a beautiful flower is a lot like charm. Desirable, yet hard to measure.

Imagine somebody, let’s call him Sven. He has a well paid job making things more streamlined, measurable and efficient. One day he pops into his favourite french bistro after work with one of his work mates called Doug. Sven likes going there because of the foreign music, the old school posters on the walls and the slightly mad ambiance. He enjoys the crazy chef who shouts a lot. The host has loads of funny stories, is effortlessly charming and always remembers Sven’s name. While all this pleasantness is washing over him Doug says to him – why do you like coming here, the tables are too bloody small. He had never noticed. That’s the thing about radiant beauty, a good yarn and a dollop of charm, in the right hands, they are way more powerful than being correct and accurate.

Some in our industry might want to discard or minimise these things because they are hard to measure, yet they have never been needed more than now.

There is a simple reason for this.

People like them. People want them. People need them.

Take Tinder. You can create an efficient service that gives you lots of data and measurement. But where the technology ends, people begin. You might be able to get them that date very efficiently. But, it is those pesky humans who are going to have the date. So, the next day the story isn’t about Tinder and efficiency. It’s about the date Jenny had with the weird guy who had a mullet and a very large goldfish collection. Or, perhaps, how she just met the love of her life. It is not just about what we efficiently give. It is also about what people want. And, what people often want is immeasurable. Charm, beauty, seduction, surprise, love and new stories. Human experience. The things that make life worth living.

We need what can be measured. Time and distance. This is the compass. However, we also need what can’t be measured. The story of what happened on the journey. This is the engine.

And we need to quickly realise, one is very pointless, without the other.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Stranger Things. The Cannes Edition.

“Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony.”

Lou Reed

I had been looking for a sign for a couple of days. And there it was.

I was walking down a little back street in Cannes. I reached one of those fashion outlets that always make me think they are a front for something else. In my head, it was the Marseilles mafia smuggling huge wheels of cheese, fake wine and millions of questionable Moroccan cigarettes. You know those stores. They never have any customers but somehow always remain open. I stared at the faceless and lonely mannequins and on the window was the quote that perfectly summed up Cannes this year.

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For years, Cannes had been a place where for a week, it felt like a million oracles had all been parachuted onto the Carlton Terrace. They would take a sip of their mystical Rose’, adjust their newly bought scarves, look you in the eye and say, I can explain everything.

Now, they normally couldn’t. But, they could vaguely steer you in the right direction. You could get a read of things. I have written before, that for me, Cannes was like a compass and an engine. It could get you through all the waves of opinion with a little inspiration and sometimes it could even point you in the right direction.

That is no longer the case. Cannes is now like that weird swimming pool in Stranger Things. The Upside Down.

Whatever you hear in Cannes, you will also hear and see the exact opposite.

Let me give you what I heard and wrote down from discussions around me in a single Cannes hour to demonstrate what I mean. All this, in one hour. User experience is everything in the future, emotional storytelling is what is really important, why being human is the way forward, the efficiency of programmatic will set you free, consultancies are so much more/less, Agencies, what is the new model, Blockchain is off the chain, dog (Yes, somebody actually said that), television isn’t dying, it’s having babies. I really could go on for a couple of pages.

Let’s take stuff that you have read over and over. So, perhaps you think it is true. Take the often said line that advertising is dying. My creative partner Shane Bradnick made the wry observation while we were lining up to register on day one that if advertising is dying there sure are a lot of people at the funeral. Cannes was packed but everybody kept saying or asking if advertising was dying. The weirdness was industrial strength this year.

Or, you will be walking behind two men wearing identical pairs of chinos talking about the genius of A.I between the Martinez and the Carlton. I counted them saying the word optimisation 12 times within the length of a single Dior store. You will then walk into the Palais and hear somebody else in a Panama hat saying A.I is bullshit. It is just this years buzzword like big data was a couple of years ago.

The phrase I remember overhearing at breakfast was somebody saying replace the letters A.I with the words computer programme and it’s not so sexy is it.

And, I am sure both conversations are 100 percent valid, or not. That is how it was every day. Literally, think of any topic or perspective and the opposite was right next to it poking it in the ribs.

This created a type of madness in some people. They were wrestling with an unending anaconda of ambiguity. They developed a strange form of Tourette’s and kept asking what the bloody trends were this year. Like this, would keep them safe and give them a map. There is no map.

Those questions were questions Cannes used to be able to answer. In the past, Cannes could create an order for the coming year and those old buildings could take new ideas and create a pattern we could all see. The reality is there are no more patterns or perhaps there are millions of them. Either way, things are moving too quickly for a compass. Cannes can still give you an engine fuelled with inspiration but you will have to figure out where to go. And that might all change tomorrow.

My friend Ari Weiss and CCO for DDB North America explains the issue very well in his article for Campaign. https://www.campaignlive.com/article/cannes-future-just-unpredictable-future-advertising/1486489.

What has changed is time. We don’t have any. And strangely, I am not even sure how valuable it is anymore. I mean what the hell is a trend in advertising? Two of the biggest winners in the last couple of years were sculptures. Fearless Girl and Graham. Is that a trend? Should we all be taking sculpture classes? I am being facetious but you get the idea. The simple answer Cannes gave me this year is don’t worry about trends and where things are going just deal with what is right in front of you.

Just deal with today because today is far longer than it used to be.

In amongst all the weirdness and confusion, I found that thought quite liberating.

Stop looking for signs.

Do what is in front of you.

It’s going to be O.K.

Just read to the damn pony.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Do you speak creativity?

“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.”

Albert Einstein

Doing stand-up in Poland. This is a phrase that we used to say at an agency I use to work at many years ago. It referred to a bad meeting with a client that involved a creative presentation.

It would feel like you were in the middle of Warsaw in a comedy club trying to do your routine. The only problem was nobody understood what you were saying because nobody in the audience spoke English.

I had always wondered about these meetings. It was like I had done exactly the wrong thing by presenting ideas that had pushed the boat out. Yet, there it was on the brief. Give the client big, bold out of the box ideas.

In these meetings, the general response was like why are you showing us this stuff. It could create a lot of trouble for us.

While I was thinking about all this I stumbled on this interview with Jordan Peterson. Now, I know he polarises opinion but for the moment I would ask you to focus on what he says in this interview. For me, it makes a lot of sense when I think of the experiences I have had in my career. He speaks with real clarity about the problem with creativity inside corporations. Essentially, his point is that creative types are difficult to manage, don’t like routine and hate working inside a system, so they are normally weeded out fairly quickly. They don’t conform, so they don’t rise up the ranks. He then makes a second very important point. Creatives, or if you prefer, entrepreneurial types are desperately needed at the top of businesses because although they are high risk they are also high reward. They are the ones that makes growth happen. Yet, they are often not there.

So, it would seem there is a real disconnect when it comes to creativity and business. On the one hand, you hear how important it is for growth. You hear it is how a business moves forward. Insert Steve Job’s lesson or snappy slogan here.

On the other hand, it would seem it is very hard for a creative person to make it to the top in many businesses.

From a personal perspective, you will never see this more clearly than when you pitch on a piece of business. The brief will say the business wants radical transformation, real out of the box thinking. You will be told they want ideas that scare them.

And sometimes, that is all true. You will have an amazing client who wants creativity. They are open to new ideas. They are trying to go somewhere. They have a vision and are excited by new thinking. They want to go on a journey with you.

And sometimes, it isn’t true. You see pure fear as you begin to present. The client looks at you like you are real trouble. You are speaking a foreign language. You have given them a big headache. Invariably this leads to work that is average.

I write about this because although there is a lot of talk about technology and data and how advertising is changing. However, what hasn’t changed is a ritual that happens every day across the world. People that smell of Red Bull and spray glue, stare with fixed smiles to hide a lack of sleep, at other people across a boardroom table to win their business.

The pitch. The most human moment in advertising. The one thing that has changed very little in our business and depends on one human being understanding the ideas of another.

A pitch is such a simple process but it really is amazing how different each one can be.

There are many reasons for this. Politics, personalities, an agency getting it wrong and the brief not being clear are just a few that I can mention. However, what Professor Peterson says makes a lot of sense and has to be one of the main variables.

The truth is there are many companies where there are not any people across the table who speak creativity. And by definition, don’t actually want any creativity. I get the fact that it may be hard to sell internally. Or, the company won’t buy out there work. The problem is there is still a need for new ideas. You cannot have lateral thinking while being perpendicular. There is always going to be some risk to get any reward.

This is going to become a bigger problem moving forward. Think of how the job landscape will change in the future. Jobs that can be replicated by an algorithm or A.I will disappear.  Creativity is a vocabulary many more people and companies are going to have to learn to understand. And perhaps, more importantly, value.

Yes, creativity may mean risk to many.

However, if you speak the language you can create and shape the world you want.

Or, you can choose not to understand, stand still and wait for the world to shape you.

I think we all know how that one ends.

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. The worst laugh is at the back of the room.

 

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“An egg is funny, an orange is not.”

Fred Allen

One of the most painful things you can ever see is a comic bombing. It is like watching somebody else being kicked in the balls but somehow you feel the pain. This was happening to me about a week ago.

It was late at the comedy club. There is a beautiful, opaque, intoxicating sadness about a comedy club. Comics loudly telling stories about past glories. Human beings trying to withstand it all by making other human beings laugh. A boulevard of broken dreams that occasionally glitters so brightly, you are willing to keep walking as the rain falls.

The comic I was watching had been on for a very long nine minutes. He had another six to go. This was when he got his first laugh. It was from the other comics at the back of the room. It was both brutal and merciful. Sort of like having to shoot your horse after it had stumbled into a ravine only a mile from reaching home. At night. And it’s snowing.

The reality was he didn’t have the craft. And without craft, his jokes became vague. His perspective was no longer specific. He stopped connecting with the audience. He had committed the cardinal sin. His point of view was generic. Death for a comic.

An hour earlier, I had watched a great comic in action. Jim Gaffigan. He did an hour. He had the audience in the palm of his hand. He took mundane subjects and made them funny because of his perspective. He has his own voice. He was specific and that’s why he connected.

It was hard not to think of the two comics major differences after seeing them straight after each other. Why one worked and one didn’t. It was also hard not to think of which one is more like our approach in advertising. Of course, we don’t have the luxury of saying whatever we want in our business. However, it struck me that the greatest advertising in the world is normally idiosyncratic and specific. It has a perspective. A point of view.  Whether you like Cadbury Gorilla, Fearless Girl, Volvo’s Epic Split etc there is a strong point of view that gives the work value. And just as importantly, there is a level of craft in the way it is executed that makes it bold, fresh and brave.

This may seem obvious but the reality is the vast amount of advertising does not follow this path. It is often generic and inoffensive. And forgettable.

The advertising process is often about trying to do something everybody will like. It is often a form of risk management. Great advertising is about doing something people will love. The name of the gap between like and love is risk.

Lately, we have been trying to bridge that gap with personalisation, data and information. Relevance is the word you hear a lot in terms of placement. But hardly ever about execution.

A recent stat that came out of America is that 66% of adults don’t want advertising that is tailored to their interests. And when researchers explained how adtech can target ads to them that number hit 80%.

It is a complicated world. On the one hand, if you are generic, you are often forgettable. If you are highly targeted, you are unwelcome and thought of as a little creepy.

However, if you go to a comedy club and watch a great comic, the answer becomes a little clearer.

For a comic to reach an audience and really connect they have to be specific. To be specific, they have to take a risk to get any reward. It can’t just be accurate information, or relevance, there has to be a leap made of hard earned skill and perspective. They have to give the audience something of value and the audience will give the comic their most valuable possession. Their time. This is an exchange that will never change.

Otherwise, the only laughs will be from the back of the room.

And they are not real.

 

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Be somewhere.

 

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 I want you to imagine I am telling you the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. In your head, run it through. Picture all the details, the twists and turns and the big ending.

Right, now take the same story and tell it in half the time. Now halve the time again. And again. Eventually, your story would be something like Girl, bear and porridge. This process happens in advertising a lot these days. You only have to look at the vast majority of advertising to see this. There is a reduction of elements which is why so much online advertising looks like 1950’s print ads. A visual, a headline, a payoff line.

What this often leads to is information with no emotion. We know from the studies of Les Binet and Peter Field this is not the way forward. So, that’s a problem. However, a far larger problem is that the kind of ideas that are now being made are often selected on flexibility rather than impact.

The only thing in advertising that is worse than being invisible is being invisible everywhere.

The criteria for how a great idea is chosen today is often about how many hats it can wear rather than its impact as a single form of communication.

In essence, an integrated campaign today seems to be far more about counting impressions as opposed to making one. I would say that when measurement becomes more important than what is being measured there is a problem.

An integrated campaign, was always supposed to be multiple elements that worked together. It is supposed to be many Lego blocks that build something bigger and better. It was never supposed to be every Lego block and more importantly, it was never supposed to be one Lego block sliced to within an inch of its life. Today, integrated campaigns as a concept are often replaced with a single asset chopped up to be spread across as many communication channels as possible. Every time I go to a conference, there is somebody saying you shouldn’t just put your television ad online. Well, go online and tell me what most brands are doing.

There are many reasons for this happening. A budget that has not grown while the amount of communication channels has. A lazy agency or marketer. The inability to think long term. The lack of a brand platform that allows you to have multiple executions that are relevant to their channels yet all contribute to the same idea. These reasons and many others have resulted in this now often being a blueprint for a modern campaign.

Sadly, you can see the ramifications of this when you look at portfolios of advertising students. You see an average idea repeated across multiple channels with very little thinking about each channel or how the separate assets work together. And the students always say the same thing. You see it’s a great idea, it works everywhere.  This is learnt behaviour and they are learning it from our industry. They are learning, incorrectly, that picture frames are more important and valuable than the picture.

I think we as an industry must be very careful that our quest for flexibility and pragmatism don’t lead us down a road of utilitarian mediocrity.

We need to remember being everywhere, averagely, is just another way of saying you are nowhere.

We have never needed brilliance in our industry more than we do now.  For that you need great ideas. Ideas that blow your mind and demand your attention. Ideas that are exciting, audacious and very unboring. Ideas that have impact. Ideas you won’t forget.

We need to have the kind of ideas that paint a memorable picture people want to look at rather than have ideas that are a frame for an endless procession of bland and instantly forgettable whitewashed walls, we hope, people might remember.

Because hope, is not a strategy.

 

 

 

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising. Respect the Pain.

nike-nothing-beats-a-londoner-index(Image from Nike Nothing beats a Londoner commercial)

‘Jealousy is just love and hate at the same time.’

Drake

I would like to talk about a feeling. A very strange and specific feeling that you can get being a creative in advertising. To explain it I will take you back a few years to a job interview I had in London.

It was at the Ivy. Now, for anybody in London this restaurant is an institution. If London was a restaurant it would be the Ivy. At the time, I didn’t know any of this as I had just arrived from the colonies. I walked past the famous stain-glassed windows, opened the door and with as much fake confidence as I could muster announced to the maitre d’ that I was here for lunch at the Ivy. The maitre d’ that I decided was called Jean-Claude was impeccable. He wore a suit so well that I was convinced it was airbrushed. Neat was not the word. He displayed a level of flawlessness that I am incapable of matching. His faultless hair alone could make you feel like you were wearing brown shoes with a black tuxedo for the rest of your life. It had the allure and symmetry you will only ever see looking down through the clouds at vineyards somewhere in Burgundy. The comb he used was probably handed down in a mystical ceremony, deep in the Black Forest where Europe’s finest headwaiters meet in cloaks exchanging stolen bottles of wine, wheels of cheese and closely guarded neat secrets, that I am sure very few mortals can understand. But I digress.

As I said, I had announced that I was here for lunch at the Ivy.

Jean-Claude without really looking up from a wine list that seemed to list every wine ever made simply and instantly added a word to my sentence.

Club.

I was a bit confused. He informed me the Ivy ‘Club’ was next door and that is where I was having lunch. And to be clear, The Ivy Club might be next door but it is a very long way from The Ivy Restaurant.

This encounter gave me a strange feeling. A mixture of anger, awe and respect. He hadn’t asked my name. He never knew who I was. But, Jean-Claude was so good at his job and knew his customers so well that he was certain I wasn’t eating there that day.

My backpacking attire may also have been a clue.

The reason I mention this story is that I happened to watch a documentary about the refurbishment of The Ivy in the same week I watched the brilliant Nike commercial called ‘Nothing beats a Londoner’. Here is a link https://youtu.be/n0j_CX1S2es

For some reason I didn’t write about it instantly. And, as it happens, I fortuitously saw the Ivy documentary the following day.

I guess for me the connection between my story about The Ivy and the Nike commercial is that feeling that is a mixture of anger or perhaps jealousy, awe and respect. It is a weird feeling you only have as a creative when you experience something great.

I could be a fan-boy and say what I liked about the commercial. What made me laugh, what was slick or what was new or fresh. But, the more I thought about it what made me like the commercial was the pain. The truth is what separates that commercial from many was the sweating of details. The appreciation of craft. The millions of tiny choices that won’t let you sleep. Not taking shortcuts. Trying to make sure every second had some love. And remember, for those who think ads are getting shorter, it’s three minutes long. That is a lot of love.

You could see the creatives had given everything. You could see how hard it must have been. They bled to make something look easy and effortless. They endured pain, lost battles and did not give up.

I don’t know if the ad is perfect. I do know however that the creatives could not have tried harder.

Perhaps, that is what real perfection is.

It made me think of Jean-Claude. The millions of hours learning. The infinite detail. The crazy fucking chefs. The stupid requests and impossible guests. Smiling through the pain. Taking it, pushing through and winning. You have to respect that pain because that is how great work happens.

You have to respect that pain because it is what makes you better. It is what separates you from the rest.

Anyway, I like to think when Jean-Claude told me to go to the Ivy Club his feet were hurting from yesterday’s service. And, it was just the beginning of today’s shift. But, I also know, you could be bloody sure he would there tomorrow with perfect hair.

Nothing beats a Londoner or Jean-Claude. They both respect the pain and painfully, yet happily, remind me to do the same.

(Image Nike Nothing beats a Londoner).

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advertising, Uncategorized

Advertising was never supposed to be a generic medicine.

“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”

Pablo Picasso

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The first thing advertising has to do is be noticed. It would seem right now many are forgetting this. If an ad isn’t noticed the rest doesn’t matter, does it?

Making an impact is the job. Which is why I have always thought it odd that creatives will take a hit if they do something that is deemed strange. However, if a piece work is vanilla, boring and unnoticed there are often very few consequences.

I am often asked why so much advertising is so shit. This tends to happen at barbecues where I smile sheepishly, shrug my shoulders and have some more lamb. However, when I saw the new Leeds logo and the new Diet Coke work I started to think about it a bit more. If you think about how much time and process is involved in advertising why is the output often so banal?

The first reason I would put out there is that many brands have literally no clear or unique perspective and vision. With brands like this, there is often a fear of emotion and new ideas and a reliance on generic information that is singlehandedly supposed to create impact. When this happens the internal processes can often be an obsessive attempt at making sure the information is correct rather than interesting. This happens a lot and there are certain brands that have made the same ineffective ad over and over for the last 20 years. And just to be clear, I didn’t say the same idea, I said the same ad.

The second reason I would put out there is that many of these processes are about mitigation of risk as opposed to magnification of impact. Once again, this is about being correct rather than being interesting. And, when you look at what is happening in advertising right now most advances are all about being correct rather than impactful.

All this can often lead to the strategy becoming the actual work as is the case in the new Diet Coke work. It is work without any leap. No risk, no magic, no point of view, just platitudes and generalities that mean nothing and have very little impact. Ask any creative if a manifesto in a pitch has ended up becoming the ad and you will see them sadly nod their heads. The reason this happens is information very rarely causes trouble internally. What always causes trouble is emotion, execution and ideas because they cannot be measured empirically. The moment somebody says that’s not how I pictured it, you have problems inside a company. This is why there are so many vignette ads that show every demographic doing all sorts of lifestyle type things with a stirring voiceover. There is no risk in this approach apart from nobody remembering the work.

There are a couple of other reasons I think work can be poor. They are the usual suspects but worth mentioning. Time and money. You get what you pay for. Many people in our industry don’t believe this. They think talent is a myth. And craft, makes no difference to the bottom line. This line of thinking is one of the easiest ways to absolutely guarantee your brand looks and sounds just like your competitors. The Leeds logo is a great example of this. The work looks like something you would see in a stock library if you searched for football badge. It is generic, corporate, cold and has no meaning. It the antithesis of what a badge over your heart should be. This is something 50 000 fans made very clear to management the day after the logo was released by signing a petition. The management responded by saying they consulted 10 000 people. For me, this proves there is not much wisdom or vision in crowds. What crowds do is make things safe, inoffensive and generic. They find the middle not the edge.

As I said, what causes all the trouble is not information but ideas, emotion and execution. Ideas, emotion and execution are dangerous things. It is understandable for some to try to steer clear of them and just stick to the certainty of information.

The problem with that is we live in an age of information. All we are surrounded with is information. Doing that, is like pouring salt water into the sea. It doesn’t make much difference.

Advertising has always been about breaking through. To make a huge impact. To be fucking noticed. When they zig, we zag. Emotion, ideas and execution are our medicine and we should never stop taking it.

Otherwise, the patient might become very boring.

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