September 11, 2012

Too Many Meetings?

Filed under: Operations — Joe Grant @ 1:42 pm

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Too many meetings at your agency? Or maybe not enough.

Don’t be like the three partners who prided themselves on “door jam” meetings where they’d settle important issues on the fly. It was casual and breezy, but too often one of the partners was unintentionally left out. In interviewing the staff as part of an agency assessment the single biggest problem was, yep, mixed messages and lousy communication.

If you’re in a company with even just 3 or 4 employees you’re part of a dynamic ever-changing organism requiring structure to stay healthy. The executive team has to meet frequently to check the company “dashboard” and make sure the gauges and dials indicate things are going right no matter what size the place is.

In running a company, two kinds of regular meetings are required: operations and policy. Operations meetings cover day-to-day things which are often trivial but can cripple if not managed — should we replace the ever-jamming copier; one of the toilets is busted; what about this year’s holiday party, etc.

Policy meetings are more high level – the pros and cons of absorbing a competitor, reviewing the hiring budget, planning for retirement of a senior partner.

Aim to spend an hour a week on ops — same day and time if possible so it becomes an easy habit. Yes, I’m serious. One hour a week is plenty; you’re there to do billable work for clients, not meeting repeatedly to solve the same problems over and over.

Schedule half-day policy meetings no less than every quarter to review the big issues and opportunities. Then, to cover the really important stuff requiring thoughtful contemplation, once a year hold a full-blown facilitated offsite retreat for a couple of days.

A sidebar here about facilitators. You’ll stay on track, get more done, and come up with many more solutions and ideas if you engage a professional facilitator familiar with your industry (find out more about what we do in this area on our website.) An objective referee will make things more productive than if you did it on your own. There’s a reason doctors don’t operate on themselves.

Meetings are tools but they’re not a multi-purpose Leatherman. A meeting is only good for three things: (1) to share information, (2) to capitalize on opportunities, and (3) to solve problems. They are not free-for-alls for attendees to pile on (“Yeh, and another thing that’s wrong around here is . . . “)

Here’s an elegant 3-part prescription we use when facilitating which will easily quadruple your meeting productivity. Start by briefly defining the issue and asking, What’s possible to achieve – what’s the ideal outcome we want? Next, ask What are the obstacles, what’s in our way? Finally (and spend the bulk of your time here): How do we remove the obstacles?

With the obstacles out of the way the path will be clear and you’ll be on your way to accomplishing your goal.

Keep it that simple and your meetings will become shorter, less frequent, and a lot more satisfying.

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May 8, 2012

The Answer to Agency Training

Filed under: Career Advice,Leadership,Operations,Staying Fresh — Joe Grant @ 3:55 pm

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Brian Tracy, the well known sales trainer and author, wrote a piece a while ago, and he’s so right about this: “No matter what your job you’ve gone as far as you can with what you now know. Any progress you make from this moment onward will require that you learn and practice something new.”

But how?

Earl Nightingale hosted a popular syndicated radio program many years ago and founded the training company Nightingale-Conant. One of his aphorisms was just one hour a day of study is all it takes to get to the top.

Are you kidding me? Who has that kind of time!

But it gets worse. Nightingale actually claimed that 1 hour per day of study will put you at the top of your field within three years, in 5 years you’ll be a national authority, and in 7 years, you can be one of the best people in the world at what you do.

If he’s only half right, that’s pretty astounding.

I believe the heart of his message is valid. To get beyond what you already know,you’ve got to learn all you can about our business, particularly the “softer” skills like personal relationships, persuasion, and thinking-around-corners. Those kinds of skills which you probably didn’t study in school are what make people in the advertising and marketing arena successful, right?

The fact is you’re just not going to get much schooling of any kind in most agencies today. And with the speed of change, you can’t afford to wait for the company you work for to invest in you. To get ahead you’ve got to go get smart on your own.

Think about it: you don’t actually work for anybody anyway – you’re self-employed. No matter what level you’re at, you’re working for your own advancement, to better your life and your family’s.

So let’s get crazy for a moment. What would happen to your career if you made a decision today to invest, let’s say, 2% of your annual income back into yourself, for your own personal and professional development? It makes no sense to be cheap about your education — you’re investing in yourself!

Look at your clients. They’re constantly evolving new and improved products to be more competitive and grab more market share. Why not do the same? Nightingale claims if you do you’ll probably never have to worry about money again.

And here’s something that may strike you as over the top, but it’s worth considering. Brian Tracy says that if you read only one skill-improvement book a month, that will put you into the top 1% of income earners. If you read one hour per day in your field, that will translate into about one book per week. One book per week is 50 books a year and that’s 500 books over ten years.

If you did that I have no doubt you’ll be one of the best educated, smartest, most capable and highest paid people in our business. Regular reading will transform your life completely; it has for many others, including me. And it could’t be easier these days with Kindle and iPads.

Here’s a way to put this idea into practice.

Ask the successful people around you for their best book recommendations.Whatever advice they give you, immediately go out and buy or download those books and commit to reading for one half-hour every morning before you start work (that way you’ll eliminate the excuse of being too tired to read in the evening).

Sounds impossible, right? Yet many people spend hours in a health club “working out” and do nothing to improve their biggest asset, their heads.

I guess that’s OK if you don’t mind being stuck right where you are for a long, long time.

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November 1, 2010

Don’t Be a Firefighter

Filed under: Leadership,Operations — Joe Grant @ 3:30 pm


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clip-art-fireservice-firefighter-attackWe call it firefighter management – dashing from one flare-up to another trying to make sure everything doesn’t go up in flames.

You scramble to flush out new business leads, hit client deadlines just under the wire, do things yourself because it’s quicker than showing someone how to do them your way. You know the drill.

And so one year slides into the next leaving that disquieting feeling that you’re just not getting where you want to go. Tell the truth now: have you accomplished all you wanted this year as we’re into Q4?

The solution is simple but not easy. You need a timeout and I don’t mean just a few days off around the holidays. You need to step back, take a breath, get some perspective. And then come up with a way that’s going to work to achieve your goals.

Here’s how to do it.

First, lead a directed conversation with your best thinkers for a day or two (off-site is best) that starts with a snapshot of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; define your agency’s key success factors; establish no more than five or six strategic imperatives; craft an ironclad action plan anchored by individual accountability and deadlines covering people issues, operations, marketing plans, financial milestones, and personal growth goals; set immutable dates for regular progress reviews; and – this is important – establish and enforce inviolable consequences for meeting or missing objectives.

That in a nutshell, folks, is a strategic planning action agenda with teeth (the consequences part). So why can’t more agencies do it?

Couple of reasons. First, it’s a little like a doctor performing self-surgery – the knowledge is there but operating on yourself is usually painful and always messy. Lots of agencies hold “planning meetings” which net little more than confusion, increased frustration, and more same-old same-old.

Another reason is a phenomenon called “goal distraction.” Example: you chase after a fat piece of business for months (“If we get this new account it will fix everything!”) but in the process take your eye off the ball running and growing the accounts already in-house. You will pay a price for that inattention later on, believe me.

Here’s another common goal distraction. You spend thousands trying to find that one extraordinary staffer, maybe shell out a stiff headhunter’s fee, but meantime completely ignore essential skill development which would have enormous positive effect (account leadership training, presentation skills, strategic thinking) because “we don’t have the budget for that.” You’ve fixated on hitting a particular target but ignored the essential ingredients of success.

Besides goal obsession, there’s yet another reason that homemade strategic planning often fails. Many agency leaders try too hard to be all things to all people, including acting as doting father figures to their staff “children” because their need to be liked is greater than their need to succeed, no matter their protests to the contrary. But that’s a subject for another blog.

The downside is a few months after you meet to put your plan together it begins to fall apart and it’s back to business as usual – flailing at the flare-ups, and trying not to hear the little voice in your head chanting Thoreau’s chilling admonition, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation…”

Let’s be clear. If you launch into next year merely hoping for better results without a new way to get the important things done, come Q4 2011 you’ll be right where you are now. Something has to change.

A consequence-laced strategic plan is almost as magical as punching a destination into the GPS and following turn-by-turn directions. You’ll get where you want to go.

Put a plan together and stick with it. You’ll spend less time carrying around those damn fire hoses.


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March 9, 2010

Science of Motivation


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One of the striking things about the ad agency business is that we claim to be a “creative” enterprise but rarely demonstrate real innovation in running our businesses.

In fact, some of the agencies we’ve counseled over the years are the most un-creative places you can imagine, with moribund management showing little understanding of what makes people tick.

If you own or operate an ad agency – or want to some day – take a few minutes to watch this startling clip from a recent TED Conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) presentation by Dan Pink as he sorts out the puzzle of employee motivation. You think incentive pay programs work? Maybe you should think again.

This one’s worth every minute of your time.

Thanks to Cortney Cahill, Brand Coach at Kelliher Samets Volk in Burlington VT for bringing this to my attention. By the way, if you’re not familiar with TED check it out here: TED Ideas Worth Spreading.


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June 10, 2009

Rainy Day Ideas


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It’s raining as I write this, and it reminded me of what a drag it can be for kids stuck inside on a dreary, damp day. It’s depressing.

But when I was growing up and it rained, my Mom encouraged me to do something different, something to help eliminate the blanket of lethargy and apathy which often accompany drizzly days.

You can use a similar ploy at your agency.

Use wet sloppy days to solve nettlesome problems, break out of ruts, and get ideas flowing. Stick with me – this may sound hokey but I guarantee something productive will come from it.

Come up with a list of rainy-day projects. Some suggestions:

  • Task groups or individuals to generate a minimum of 10 ideas to increase the value of their work for clients without increasing cost or unbillable hours
  • Offer a small gift, maybe some sort of traveling trophy, for the largest number of computer files dumped or most kilobytes liberated by day’s end
  • Hold a contest – each department comes up with ideas to improve its efficiency and communication with another department
  • Then there’s the old standby: develop money-saving, productivity-increasing ideas, e.g. how can we develop low cost training programs?
  • Plan something different for this year’s Christmas party (always fun to do in the summer)
  • Start a book club – read business books and report on them to the staff with a focus on discovering improvements you can implement

Put a time limit on these “rainy day” challenges so other routine projects get done. At the end of the day have a beer-and-chips session to regroup and present any “awards.”

Here’s the point: it’s all about ideas. It’s invigorating to break out of routines on an otherwise dreary day and come up with a bunch of smart solutions. A little bit of fun like this will actually lubricate your brain so it’s easier to solve other problems. Try it.

By the way, a rainy day is a great opportunity for the boss to surprise everyone and order in lunch, too…

Your 2 cents

These were just a few thoughts that came to mind as a steady rain continues to fall outside. So what do you think? Got any suggestions to share with others reading this? Please comment below.

May 27, 2009

Reposition Your Agency Now




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man-in-hammock If you think the ad agency business as we’ve known it will be soon returning to normal so you can relax a little this summer, forget it.

OK, so we’re seeing ‘green shoots’ in the economy as Bernanke says – little glimmers here and there that we’re no longer flat-lining. But when we emerge from this tunnel the scenery is going to be quite a bit different. It’s delusional to think we can pick up right where we left off before the economic balloon shriveled.

Times have changed.

Instead of waiting for things to improve, why not use the next few months to re-cast your agency for 2010 and beyond?

  • First, create a true strategic plan. With teeth, more definitive than merely “make more money than last year.” Set hard milestones and accountabilities with consequences for performance or lack thereof. Ad agencies aren’t wishing wells where you hope things magically get better; they’re businesses and should be run that way.
  • Fix the nagging internal ops which always seem to sabotage your efficiency. You know what’s not working – eliminate the bottlenecks and soft spots. Now.
  • Purge mediocre or over-ripe staff who are no longer growing. Too harsh, you say? Well for the times ahead you need fresh vigorous talent who’ll lead your agency into tomorrow, not back markers hung up on how easy it was in the good ole’ days (it’s an ideal time to hire because there’s a lot of recently displaced top-notch talent available who can really impact how you attract and keep better clients. See It’s Time to Hire.
  • Reorganize to meet today’s client needs and changing markets. Don’t be held hostage by old agency models dating back to when mass media and 15% commissions were king. Take a clean sheet of paper and redraw your agency structure around what works best for clients, not what’s easiest. You’ll never go wrong doing that.
  • Analyze your fees and client agreements then adjust as necessary. It always amazes me how afraid agencies are to raise rates when so many of their costs are going up. Stop complaining about how hard it is to make a buck and instead hike your rates so you can stay healthy. Courage, men!
  • Digital, social media, i-tech . . . They’re’ not add-ons, folks, which you can claim you’re competent in just by hiring a person or two. They’re where things are right now and the springboard to, well, who knows?

Of course you don’t have to change anything at all. Hey, as clients begin to spend again and the pressure abates, you can schedule more afternoons for golf, right?

Or. . . you could dedicate some of those golf afternoons to concentrate on what has to change so your agency can get ahead of the curve. You can use part of the summer to make smart decisions and reposition your agency so it won’t be a victim of the times, technologies, and changing tastes – to make it a leader not a follower.

Then again you could just flop into a hammock and wait for things go “back to normal.”

May 15, 2009

Agency Leadership Disasters

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A few stories from some agencies we know with suggestions to avoid similar fates.

When you read these you may think, “No way.”  Well, way. I’ve been in the middle of straightening these messes out as an “agency shrink” and though there’s a shade of obfuscation in each tale to identities , be assured they’re all true.

Agency T: A high-energy place, a big independent in a large town with brand new offices and just now coming off a couple of flat-to-awful years. Sounds good so far, but here’s the problem: the 7 VPs do everything they can to avoid each other – some actually brag they haven’t spoken in months! They have no regular meetings. Sadly, several say that even though they’re paid well, they hate coming to work because they dislike their colleagues so. They simply can not work as an effective group and so the agency misses opportunities and is a pretty miserable place to work for a lot of people.

Agency D: In business 18 years, 28 people on staff. Scraping by but they’ll probably survive today’s soft economy. Unless, of course, the owner’s unmitigated and TOTAL lack of trust in his 4 senior players doesn’t scuttle the ship. He says he can’t stand to even look at them they’re so incompetent, unreliable and disengaged. He hasn’t done anything about it because (1) “it might upset our clients” and (2) “it’s hard to get good people.” Folks, I’m not making this up.

Agency V: Dad now in his 60s started this place and did well (the biggest Mercedes, house in the mountains, and everything’s paid for). Brought his kid in a couple of years ago right out of college to begin to take over. The problem: Dad’s so afraid the whole thing might crumble that he’s paralyzed about doing anything differently than he did 25 years ago. This guy could be the poster boy for the Risk Aversion League and as a result the agency’s dying. Clients are bailing and there’s no new business to speak of. There’ll be very little left for the kid to run.

Warren Bennis, who has made a career studying why some leaders are great and others fail, would probably tell you these agencies are in serious trouble because of titanic leadership breakdowns. Let’s look.

There’s no shared dream at Agency T, only personal agendas. It’s the CEO’s job to blend differences in style and provide direction and meaning to achieve a common unifying mission. Bennis tells the story about the Manhattan Project and George Kistiakowsky, a great chemist who later served as Eisenhower’s chief science advisor, who threatened to quit because he couldn’t get along with a colleague. Project leader Robert Oppenheimer simply said, “George, how can you leave this project? The free world hangs in the balance.” Conflict, even with brilliant and diverse people, is resolved by reminding people of the mission. Works especially well at agencies.

How’d you like to work at Agency D where the owner doesn’t trust his key people and they don’t trust him? How this guy came to hire so many people he dislikes and distrusts would keep Dr. Phil happy for several shows, but the point is if you’ve got trust you can ride out all kinds of storms. Trust starts with the CEO generating and demonstrating faith in the senior team – if it isn’t there it won’t be anyplace else in the company.

Over at Agency V, Dad’s gotten way too comfortable. I call this the WAS disease – We’ve Arrived Syndrome. If the top banana isn’t fueled by urgency, risk taking and experimentation then the agency is careening toward perdition. The son wants to diversify and maybe acquire some competitors (they’ve got the cash), but Dad won’t agree to it. Too risky. Bennis says willingness to risk failure to achieve results is at the heart of all successful ventures. I’d add that success stops when risk ends.

Full disclosure: Warren Bennis’ short article, The Secrets of Great Groups, was the inspiration for these opinions.

Your 2 Cents

How about you – have any horror tales you’d like to share? Morals to the story are highly encouraged so we can all learn.

May 5, 2009

Join an Agency Owner’s Group



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Just came from The Innisbrook Group’s semi-annual meeting in Miami. Innisbrook is a collaboration of geographically diverse integrated marketing and public relations firms whose principals get together a couple of times a year to share ideas, best practices, marketing expertise – and even screw ups. It’s all about learning.


Agency groups make a lot of sense, especially if you’ve come of age at just one agency. They provide a) a way to profit from others who may have already solved the same problems you’re facing, b) camaraderie, c) a forum to discuss issues you’d be uncomfortable getting into with even trusted staff, and d) a chance to get out of the office a couple of days to do some big picture thinking. And, yes, you’ll have e) some laughs and maybe even squeeze in a round of golf or something.

Usually there is a guest “expert” or two at the meetings (that’s how I know Innisbrook – addressed them twice, but invited this time as a favor so I could hear one of the speakers myself).

Friday the gang listened to Chrs Heuer of AdHocnium give an overview of social engagement strategies, i.e. social media, for ad agencies. Terrific stuff. Later Dave Ramos of the Dashboard Group presented his process of focusing on One Thing. Saturday morning Tom Attea, formerly of Y&R and IPG, gave an inspiring pep talk based on his new book, The Secrets of Successful Creative Advertising.

There was also time for each agency head to present a brief review of what they’ve been up to lately, including sharing new business development tips, and for the group to do some collaborative problem solving.

Any topic is fair game at these things. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there was some hootin’ and hollerin’, too. I witnessed certain agency big shots dancing on tables with belly dancers at Taverna Opa on South Beach at dinner Friday. Then Saturday the group took a Duck ride on the Miami waterways.

Hey, if you’re not a member of an owner’s group you’re missing opportunities to learn, develop relationships with peers, and have a little fun. Expenses are usually moderate; dinners, meeting rooms, etc. are typically totaled then divided by the number of agency honchos attending.

Over the years I’ve delivered seminars or speeches at several owner groups. Here are a few you might want to check out (and no doubt there are others): AMIN, AMR, ANNI, MAGNET, MarketPower,Worldwide Partners. Don’t forget the AAAAs – as a member you can participate in their Forum groups.

And if you’re interested in the Innisbrook Group, get in touch with member Will Flynn at Franklin Street Marketing in Richmond.

Just tell him “Joe sent me.”

Your 2 Cents

Comment or plug your group here. Are these agency owner’s groups helpful? If you belong to one, what’s been the best learning experience for you?

April 27, 2009

Smaller Ad Agencies Doing OK So Far

Filed under: Operations — Joe Grant @ 1:18 pm
Tags: , , ,


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We’ve gotten a lot of questions lately from agency execs wondering how other agencies are doing. Sure, you read about the latest layoffs at the mega-shops (MDC’s Accent just laid off 163 according to the BNET site) but Grant’s clients are mainly small to mid-size shops. What’s their take?

Here’s what we’re hearing from our small albeit reliable grapevine.

The 1st quarter wasn’t as bad as expected. In the 2nd half of ’08 it appeared the advertising industry as we’ve known it might cease to exist – well, almost. Agency owners were plain scared. But for most, at least the ones we work with and know, Q1 was at worst flat and in many cases better than anticipated.

The rest of the year will probably be OK. That’s not my prediction; that’s what we hear from across the country. Agencies have made tough decisions RIFing redundant, mediocre or unnecessary talent and that’s helped push salary costs as a function of AGI closer to where they should be (as near to 50% as possible). Salary cuts and freezes are in effect at many places and operating expenses have been whacked wherever possible. Those moves have helped keep shops above water. Smart. But of course you’ve got to keep the clients you have – see 8 Ways to Fortify Your Accounts for ideas to strengthen client relationships.

New business is trickling in. Agencies used to skating on their laurels and word-of-mouth to generate new accounts are now ramping up actual calculated NB programs. Remember, it can take as long as 18 months for a consistent, strategic new business process to bear fruit. But there’s that funny Law of the Universe – and you know what I’m talking about – that says if you begin pushing here, something will pop up over there, seemingly unrelated. That’s why you get an over-the-transom RFP when you’re running a big direct campaign. Happens all the time. RFPs have not dried up; if anything, there’s more action out there than most would have expected.

Talent is on sale. Some awfully good people have been let go, especially from the bigger firms, and they’re scrambling to land someplace. Now’s your chance to scoop up first-rate experienced people at clearance sale prices. That will help you raise internal bars as well as attract new, perhaps bigger/more sophisticated clients. I’ve written about this before in It’s Time to Hire and The Good News About JWT Closing

Look, I’m not trying to say it’s all rosy and the storm is over. But most of the people we chat with seem to believe ’09 is beginning to look survivable.

Now ain’t that better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick?

Your 2 Cents

Would love to hear from some agency owners about how the year has been so far. . . and how you think it’s going to pan out. Please comment.

April 13, 2009

It’s Time to Hire

Filed under: Career Advice,Operations — Joe Grant @ 2:51 pm
Tags: , ,


basketball_hoopBNET Industries reported last week that – hold your breath – 27, 281 advertising jobs have been lost so far in the current downturn.

Ye gods!

Now all those people are looking for work. . . and since it’s a buyers’ market, some smart progressive agencies have an unprecedented opportunity to take a quantum leap in their future business success.

The agency world is like music or sports – success is based on talent. Your agency is never going to be any better than the talent it employs; that’s what your clients buy, brains and skill. Mega agencies don’t land $100 million accounts just because they’re big shops – it’s the creative and strategic horsepower large agencies have by the ton that marketers want.

Today’s talent pool is more richly stocked than ever with trophy-sized fish. And it grows larger daily. Just Friday TBWA/Chiat let 40 people go, Team One cut 25, and Saatchi & Saatchi dropped another 20. These were not incompetent marginal players, understand. They worked on accounts like Lexus, Nissan, Whole Foods, and Ritz Carlton where the spend has tanked and something had to give.

This could all be to your great advantage especially if yours is a smaller shop in a medium size market.

How many One Show winning campaigns have these unemployed but creative minds yet to pen? How many game-changing strategies might they concoct? How good would one of them be in your next new business pitch? If you want more sophisticated accounts, get more sophisticated people (below are some links on how to be a better AE).

Don’t forget the backroom folks, either. There are people available who could straighten out your traffic mess in a jiffy.

This damn recession will be over someday and when it is every advertiser will be clambering for customers. Money will flow, they’ll be searching for better agencies, looking for fresh arresting ideas. When that happens the competition will be fierce and you will need high caliber people to loft your agency above its current plateau.

Yes, I hear you. . . you say it’s a great idea but there’s no money to hire. OK, but you’re investing for the future and like today’s stock market, there are bargains aplenty unlikely to come again for a long, long time.

Remember, too, when you’re out of work you’ll listen to any reasonable offer. These people are on sale. The bargains out there are extraordinary.

I’d start to interview immediately. Get to know who’s available – my God, there are more than 27,000 of them! – so at the right moment you can call and point ‘em to a desk.

Find a way to salt your agency now with a couple of Division 1 all-stars and you’ll be playing in the Final Four in no time.

PS. If you’re hiring – or aspiring – here are some thoughts about What’s a Good AE from a previous GRANT’s Client Brief. And there’s more information on our website in this article, AE 101.

Any comments?

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