Episode 5 – Kevin Gibbons – CEO RE:signal

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Audio Transcript:

VO Guy:

Hello. And thanks for coming along to, And We Have An Office Dog, the digital agency podcast where we talk to agency owner directors and learn more about what makes them tick. From the things that make them similar to the things they’d rather have known sooner. Where they’ve had success and where they’ve learned some hard lessons. All will be revealed with your host, Chris Simmance, the agency coach, and he’ll be talking to a different awesome agency person in each episode. Asking them four questions and seeing where the conversation takes us over the next 25 minutes. Okay, so let us begin. Over to you, Chris.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Thanks voiceover guy. I’ve got Kevin from Re:signal  with me today. Kevin Gibbons the CEO of Re:signal . How long have you been running Re:signal , Kevin?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah. Thanks Chris. So I’ve been running Re:signal  since, it’s almost a trick question, I’ll say 2012. But I started an agency in 2006, so quite a while. 10 years As Re:signal .

Chris Simmance (Host):

10 years as Re:signal . Give us a plug, tell us all about Re:signal . What do you do best? And why should everyone want to buy from you if they’re not an agency owner and listening to this because it’s [crosstalk 00:01:23].

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah. Yeah. So we’re a strategy led SEO agency. And we’ve built up our experience over that time and work with startups through to enterprise brands. But yeah, very much working in terms of basically driving ROI for our clients. So yeah, I feel like for us, it’s trying to see the business side of SEO as much as possible and generate meaningful results. And that’s helped us to build a strong reputation and a really good team and client base.

Chris Simmance (Host):

You definitely do have a strong reputation in the industry, that’s for sure. And I think obviously that goes to say, the same for clients. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the strategy led stuff often in digital marketing is mostly focused on a digital strategy. And you mentioned business led and I think that might be something that makes a big difference. Do you agree?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah, absolutely. I expect you probably have maybe come across this at some time, but there’s a popular podcast called Two Bobs. And David Baker from there quite often talks about, you have a strategy room, room number one, and the delivery room, room number two. And that really struck a chord with me. Because his way of looking at that thing is basically you can only enter room number two through room number one.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

And I think quite often, as an agency, you end up just doing the room two stuff. And then you don’t do the thinking. And for us, it’s very much, actually we want to be accountable for the targets. We want to work together with you on that as a client. And help to shape what success and KPIs look like. And then if you can do that, then obviously you need to apply the execution behind it too. But it’s very much a combination of those two approaches.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Otherwise, in my experience, that’s where it’s quite often … I’m sure there’s examples where you can collaborate well and maybe separate those two things. But in my experience, being in control of both of them just takes the risk out of it a bit more. There’s more accountability. And that’s where we get our strongest results from for sure.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I think a strong word there is accountability. And that pulls through all the way if you help build that strategy up, doesn’t it?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So first question then. So what do you feel has been one of the biggest successes over the last 10 years of running Re:signal ?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Honestly, it’s bounce-back-ability. We’ve had quite a journey. I’ve quite a personal journey in terms of different ups and downs. And I think being able to enjoy the good times for sure. And I think looking back, certainly at times, I’ve been, okay, we’ve won a new client, we’ve won an award, et cetera, all of the stuff that you should celebrate. I probably haven’t celebrated enough I think looking back. I’ve probably seen that as, that’s part of the job, let’s just go and do the next one. And I think actually giving yourself some credit, celebrating as a team is really important.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

But I think equally, not getting too carried away, but equally when it goes badly, being able to say, okay, well, everything’s temporary. The success is temporary. The negatives and the failures are temporary and we can turn a corner and we are not going to get ourselves too down and defeatist about this. And I’ve always been very good under pressure to the point that I’m useless if I don’t have a deadline.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Right. Okay. One of those, do it at midnight before you have to hand in your homework.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I’ve got a bit better now, I’m like 11:30.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And it’s only taken 10 years.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

But yeah, I do think really it’s, we’ve had to go backwards at different times in order to go forward. So we’ve had to learn the hard way. And I feel like you can take in as much theory as you like, but it’s very much until you make mistakes, you don’t really learn from them properly. And over 10/15 years, there’s a lot of mistakes there. So hopefully there’s a lot of learnings that have come out of it as well.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

So yeah, I do think being able to maybe pick yourself up off the floor at times has been something that … I wouldn’t encourage that you have to do that. And in any of those situations, I’ve always tried to do what I thought was the right thing at the time. But nothing always goes to plan. And I think just being able to react to it and keep your chin up a little bit in some ways and say, okay, let’s go again and let’s learn from it. Let’s build from it. And go from there.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So a strong focus on resilience and lessons that you can learn makes a lot of sense.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Oh, we’re definitely stronger for it. Absolutely. So yeah, I think that’s the thing. And I think a lot of our success has come from our failures. I don’t see success and failure being polar opposites. I see failure as being part of why we’re successful.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Well, it’s only a failure if you learn from it, if you don’t learn from it, you’re a bit thick.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Exactly. Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

If you keep making the same mistakes over and over again, then naturally you won’t have gotten 10 years into running Re:signal . And you can’t see Kevin right now, but I can, he’s smiling gleefully at his 10 years of successes.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah. But to be honest, it means more as well, because if it was all easy, then it’s like you’re playing a computer game with a cheat code on sort of thing. It’s like, actually, no, for us, it’s like, we’ve gone through those hard learnings. And for wherever we are right now, and again, I won’t take anything for granted, but I know we’ve earned certain things. I know in certain phases, we’ve got lucky in terms of certain things as well. So, equally, I’m not saying, everything that we’ve touches turns to gold, it’s quite often could be the opposite. But yeah, I think just keeping that positive attitude and mindset at times where it’s not always that easy to do so has definitely helped to pay off. And at times where we may have given up and gone on to other things, I’m actually really glad that we stuck it out. We got through some of hard times and we’ve been able to share some better experiences, certainly of late, because of that.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Awesome. And I think that, like you say, taking the knocks and the wins, the challenges combined in that, some of the wins were hard work I suspect, but the best way to maximize any performance in an agency is to have lots of growth and lots of change. Change keeps people interested. And interested people do work and they work hard and they do good things for people that they like working for. So good work.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Chris Simmance (Host):

However, the next question though, is converse to this I’m afraid. If you were to go back 10 years or so, and look at the younger, probably more spritely version of Kevin and give him any kind of advice. What would you give yourself?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

So there’s a couple of things that I would say on this. And actually the first thing is I want to touch upon something that you just said in terms of having lots of ideas. I’ve embraced my own role of being that visionary. I have the 25 ideas a day. Which I think is important to innovate and grow and improve. If you execute on 25 ideas a day, you’re all over the place. I know that, I’ve done it.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

And I think actually surrounding yourself with people who have strengths where your weaknesses are, has really helped even that out. So we’ve implemented, I wouldn’t say a hundred percent of the traction, get a grip, EOS style model, but we’ve definitely adopted a large part of that.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

We’ve promoted Hannah Butcher in our team to MD. And that very much is between myself and Hannah. A visionary integrator style role where Hannah can tell me, actually Kevin those ideas are a waste of time, but this one might be gold. And equally it could work the other way around.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

But I think just having someone that can say no to you, but also help you when the ideas are there. What are the ones that you should go for? I think has been really good because quite often … I like to think at least I’ve had some good ideas over the years. But probably haven’t quite had the level of follow through to make it happen.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

And I think surrounding yourselves with people that can be behind you, back it, and help you run with it is really important. Equally telling you when, no, this is a bad idea, let’s not go down that direction, is good as well. Because I’ve seen all too well, sometimes you can have ideas that you think are great in your own head, and you might end up wasting a lot of time.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

So yeah, I think having that team set up has been a really big thing that we’ve only done over the last probably six months. If I’d have done that 12 years ago, I think we might be in a different place right now to be honest. So yeah. So I think that’s potentially one of the big things.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So that piece of advice is either, definitely not, don’t have 25 ideas a day because that’s good, but have someone there to help make sure that some of them, that are the good ones, can be implemented?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And I think there’s an argument to have one good idea you might need a hundred ideas. It’s just how do you pick out the ones that you go for. So I’m not saying stop thinking and coming out with ideas.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

The other side to your question is, I think I’ve just learned a lot more about how to manage life. But I really liked the honesty from Nicola’s podcast that you did recently. And I think there’s a lot of things she spoke about, even getting therapy and understanding actually how to manage your own emotions at a time where … Times can be really stressful. You have to make hard decisions. You might have to make cutbacks, which affect people’s lives. Stuff that’s really difficult when it’s your own company.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

And I think just being able to take yourself, I don’t know, just look at things. And actually Nicola mentioned this, put your own air mask on first in order to help others. And I think quite often in the past, I’ve worked, worked, worked, burnt out, gone on holiday, recovered, come back again. To a point that is not healthy. And I think I’ve got a lot better now at saying, okay, I’m going to rest and recover every day, not every three months. And that’s part of my almost like routine and how I operate in order to be at my best. Rather than being in that all or nothing situation.

Chris Simmance (Host):

It’s never easy working in an agency of any size, from three staff to 3000 staff, there are different problems, but they are usually relatively built around the same sort of thing. And having the mindset of being able to be a bit resilient to things that happen is hard. You can be as resilient as you like, but it’s like the ocean crashing on the rocks, eventually something wears away. So having a break every three months is probably the advice there. Don’t have it every three months, have a little bit of one every day.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Well, yeah. And so, I mean, some people probably think I’m crazy for this, but one thing I’ve done since, I think it’s November the 11th, 2020, is I’ve walked 10,000 steps every day. For the reason that, some of its fitness and physical, but it’s mostly mental. Actually that’s my head space. That’s where I can walk with a podcast, or maybe just not at all, and just have my own thoughts. And that to me is essential. If I don’t have, it’s an hour a day, to do that sort of thing then I feel like I’m definitely getting stressed. And for me, managing that I think is just really important. And just working through it is not the answer, certainly in my case.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So, going back to the question, I guess. In this sense, would the advice be that you’ve learned this now and you should do that now, younger Kevin? Or don’t worry younger Kevin, work really hard because eventually you’ll work it all out?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

No. I think in the past, I maybe tried to just work as hard as possible towards a potential end game and not appreciate what I had at the time. And I think actually now, I want to enjoy my life from now moving forward. I don’t want that to be in five years time. And you know what it’s like, a lot of agencies will speak about, we have a three year plan and then everything’s going to be amazing. And it’s like, well, it was a three year plan two years ago.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

And the problem is, that keeps getting extended. And I think you need to find a way that you can say, I love where I am right now, I’m enjoying it. There may still be a future plan, that’s absolutely fine. But it shouldn’t be, yeah, let’s put everything into this. And there’s a lot of sacrifices that you can, and I have made I would say.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

I had a business mentor I worked with last year. And he got me to score, but firstly classify what I saw as the seven most important areas of my life, and then score them. And that was just quite eye opening in terms of, okay, well, maybe there’s some things here I’ve neglected. And maybe there’s some things that I need to focus on in order to have a bit more balance in my life. And I actually think in doing that and putting the effort into that, the business has been better for it. Because, like I say, we’ve got a senior leadership team. I’m not always the bottleneck.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Exactly. And it sounds silly to say it like this, and it isn’t flippant at all when I say it, that you should dashboard your life, as well as dashboard your business. You should have benchmarks. You should know what a minimum level of expectancy should be for you personally. And if that’s 10,000 steps a day and a bit of you time, then that’s really important. If it’s walking the dog, it’s important. Whatever that might be, if it’s 10,000 steps walking the dog, you’re in the golden zone, that’s fantastic.

Chris Simmance (Host):

But yeah, having an awareness of what’s the thing that’s important to you personally can also drive the vision and the purpose for the business, can’t it? Because if it doesn’t fit those personal aims and personal needs, then what’s the point?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah, that is. And it’s like, I do this with our clients and our team quite a lot. I will ask, So what about, what are we doing, that strategy. So why don’t you apply that to your life and say, actually, if you are working 18 hour days and you are building an amazing business, et cetera, et cetera. So what? There’s more to it. That might be an important part of it, but it’s not all of it.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I’ve had this conversation a few times in the last couple of months with some agency owners where the ‘so what’, and ‘then what’ don’t get asked often enough. And that should apply both in personal life, but in every sort of thinking of every waking moment of your day. Sounds a bit hard and tiring to do that, but eventually you work it out. But, why am I doing this? Oh, I’m doing it so that this. And why? Am I doing it for that reason? Yep. Am I doing it for personal gain, professional gain? How’s it fitting into the thing? And then once I’ve done it, then what? Is that done? Is that the end? I’ve done my 10,000 steps, now I have to sit at my desk for another 15 hours? Or now I’ve done my 10,000 steps, haven’t had many emails during that 10,000 steps, I’ll tackle them tomorrow. That’s equally fine.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah. But I do think there’s a lot in actually finding your purpose and understanding what is it that really matters. That’s bigger than yourself and bigger than your company. And that’s what can then really motivate you to do something. Certainly if you feel like you’re giving back in a way that contributes.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, absolutely.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah. In a way that’s meaningful.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So, is there something that you regret, or I guess wish you’d done differently or maybe sooner over the last 10 or so years? Is there something that you’ve learned really hard way that that has set you up for the future success?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah, I think some of it is that balance and, like I say, there’s sacrifices in terms of business that you may give up in terms of the personal side. I think equally having, like I say, that vision, that purpose. We’ve gone through a process as a team to create our vision last year. And I think that was a big turning point as well.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Previously it’s been, okay, Kevin is that ideas person, let’s just go away and do what Kevin says. And that only takes us so far. And I found quite often I’ve been the bottleneck that is burning out for that reason that this is my plan. And I hire some people to execute it. That’s not that motivating to them.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Suddenly ideas come and there’s lots of willing people, but I think, yeah, yeah.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Right. Exactly.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I think having the right team is vital obviously as a leader. Especially if you know where your limits are, you might be a really good implementer, so you need to hire a visionary instead. And vice versa. But having people who can apply decent layers of critical thinking in an agency is worth more than 10 senior technical SEO execs because of the quality of the thinking that can be done.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And quite a lot of digital agency work these days, I hope you’ll agree, and maybe if you don’t tell me, that quite a lot of the work these days is a lot more thinking and a lot less doing. You might think for hours around the solution to something and then it’s like three clicks and you’ve sorted it. Well, three clicks times several thousand pages, but you know.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Exactly. And I think at a certain scale, you can’t do that yourself. I’ve probably got away with it up until, say, the one million revenue mark, I feel you probably can get away with that being yourself. But I think in order to go beyond that, that’s where, okay, we need a team approach, we need to empower the team. And my role has become less of a doer and more of a coach. How do I help people get the best ideas out of themselves? And then help support them, hold them to account a little bit in terms of what are we doing and bringing it together.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

But everyone then has their key areas of the business that they’re moving forward. And it’s not always coming back to, Kevin, can you do this now, and it’s just a list that piles up. So yeah, I think trying to …

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

I did a Cranfield uni course and they teach a concept called passing the monkey. Of everyone comes to you with the monkey, which is their problem. And the trick is, you don’t need to take that monkey and add it to your list of things to do. You need to pass it back to them and say, okay, this is what I would do in your situation. Or have you thought about this? Or even better, what do you think? And I think that, for me, has been the big, I don’t know if I would say regret, but certainly the learning that if I could do that and go back, it’s probably that combination of have the right vision that’s built with the team and then empower them in the way that it’s our team’s plan that we take forward.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

And then, like I say, in the work-life balance side, I feel like that’s easier because not everything is on your head, it’s a team effort.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, you’ve given yourself a bit of bandwidth to think about yourself. Yeah, quite right. And you’ve mentioned bringing Hannah in up to the MD level. How was it that you came to the decision for her in particular? Is it that you’ve worked together for a long time and it was just a natural evolution or is there something specific there?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

We hadn’t worked together that long. I think it was probably about six months. She joined in a head of SEO role. We ran a series of strategy workshops to create our vision, reset our values and build a business plan. And once we got to the, how do we deliver the business plan phase, we realized there’s a big gap in terms of … And this is very much attraction language, but we had, me, that’s the visionary, but doing the integrator role, which is why I was probably burning out in a lot of ways. And have done over the years where it gets too much. And operationally, we can manage the business, but there is that glue in between of the integrator that really makes that happen. And for us, we identified a need for that.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

We looked at the strengths and weaknesses. And I think the traction model for that is, gets it once it has the capability to do it. And I think for us it then became clear that actually Hannah’s a really good fit for this. And that’s where we decided, okay, well, let’s move forward. And I think we found our integrator and MD.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s brilliant. I mean, you’re using all the exact right words, and having seen and heard about all the results, they clearly work. So the things that us wanky coaches say all the time seem to be relatively suitable. But you’ve got to get it right, haven’t you, you got to do the doing. It’s not just about writing a plan, putting it on paper and leaving it there.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

It is. And I think actually this is where having a coach can really help to be that mirror that you don’t see.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Are you advertising coaches? Keep going, keep going.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

But certainly from my perspective of, sometimes you’re too close to things. And I’m actually in a, I know you do this as well, an agency mastermind group, and it’s useful to come and say, this is my challenge right now, what would you do in this situation? And it’s so much easier to help other people with their problems than sometimes look at your own.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And in those situations, those masterminds, I used to do them a few years ago when I was running an agency as well, and it is amazing how much you can learn about you and your agency when you are going through the constructive process of solving someone else’s problems. You can come away from those sorts of sessions and go, my God, that thing I was talking to Dave or Mary about, that we’ve solved in a hot seat style thing, that’s something that I didn’t know was a problem for me. And now I’m going to try and apply it as well. And they’re so helpful.

Chris Simmance (Host):

There’s also the group therapy style aspect of it as well.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

There is, yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Where you come away and you realize, actually we are all in it together and this is us, we’re all fine.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah, it is. And I did a one week course on leading professional services companies at Harvard. Which was generally geared around law firms, accountancy. And we had a afternoon session. And one of the cases was around the split of Anderson & Anderson of when it became Accenture. And it was really interesting because at the time I’d went through the Blue Glass US situation, which I probably won’t go into full detail, we’d be here for about four hours, but essentially-

Chris Simmance (Host):

It’s a short podcast, Kevin.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Essentially we were left in a brand name issue, and actually understanding how that was addressed for a similar situation on a much bigger scale, and then having a group of peers that were lawyers and legal partners to say, what would you do? In a way that they know nothing about the industry. But they completely get business. And that’s when I decided, okay, we need to rebrand to Re:signal  because otherwise this is … Right now, it’s okay, but further down the line, if you look 10 years ahead, that’s quite a complicated mess that you need to find a way out of. So yeah, I think having those peers, that’s really helped me to shine a light or make things more urgent than I would’ve realized or acted upon.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Well, again, it’s that group mindset that helps listening as well because no one’s getting away with anything by bullshitting. So you get what you contribute in these sessions. And I think you’re right, the advice that these guys who weren’t in your sector were giving is all absolutely still relevant because they’ve seen the same problems in other places. And it’s still a business. Digital agency isn’t some sort of weird unicorn that doesn’t have the applicable rules as everything else.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So, to draw to a close, if any aspiring agency owners are listening to this podcast now, what is it that you would give them as your one golden nugget piece of advice that they could take away?

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

I think finding a niche has been really important and just knowing what it is that you’re good at. I think some agencies quite often, to a certain extent we may have made mistakes going this way as well, we were a strong agency in Oxfordshire in the early days. And I think we then saw that as an opportunity to add different services in because we could sell to those companies. And then we ended up being good at everything, not necessarily great at anything.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

And it wasn’t really until we went back to the core passion and our biggest strength in SEO, that we really started to win the Expedia sized clients. And I think that’s one of the step change deals for us. And I think once we started to really double down on SEO and say, okay, this is what we’re great at, let’s do that.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Equally I think sectors as well. Quite often, this is quite a hard thing to think as an entrepreneur, that I’m going to rule out working with 90% of the companies out there, because I want to focus on eCommerce or travel or SaaS or something like that.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

But equally, how many clients do you want? Because right now, we have about 12 clients and I would say that’s our sweet spot. We don’t necessarily want to have more than that. But we can do that at a two million or so run rate and be pretty happy with where we are. So I think if you think about it, if you need 12 clients, it’s probably easier to win 12 clients if you are super focused and well positioned, than it is to try and pick up everything from everywhere.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, you’re spot on, I think that’s great advice. I don’t know if you know David Gilroy, he’s a future guest on the podcast, they’ve niched into the legal sector and they only work with lawyers. And when you start thinking about how many lawyers there are, that sounds really tasty. But at the same time, you don’t want to be working with people who compete with each other. So part of their thing is we don’t work with certain lawyers that compete in a certain sphere of influence, whether that’s a radius or whether that’s a small sector or something specific like that.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So you then think, oh no, you’re cutting away so many leads here. And actually you then count up how many lawyers are left and you realize, there’s still quite a few.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah, that’s it.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think being specialist in a delivery of service as well is vital. The jack of all, master of none style thing, it does often ring true in service bases rather than physical delivery of stuff. I think you’ve got there, you’ve got it right by the sounds of things.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah. And I think that’s where clients will look for a specialist and maybe pay more of a premium because you’ve got that specialist skill set. And ultimately it’s about results for us. If we’ve got a team that’s geared around, how do we provide the best SEO results, and keep innovating and strengthening that one service offering. Certainly as a small team, it feels more sensible as opposed to, how do we spread ourselves maybe a bit too thin.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you very much, Kevin, for joining today. I hope you’ve enjoyed the chat. I certainly have.

Kevin Gibbons (Guest):

Yeah, of course. Yeah, thanks for having me.

Chris Simmance (Host):

No problem at all. And in the next episode, we’ll have another fantastic digital agency, awesome human being. Never going to reveal who they are, just in case they change at the last minute. I know how agencies work. And I look forward to seeing you all shortly. Thanks very much.

 

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