For Robert Buday, thought leadership is the eminence an individual achieves by developing, delivering, and creating demand for a superior solution to a complex problem. If business leaders embrace this approach, go-to markets can gain so much more. This is not just about earning bigger revenue but also about delivering better value to all. Joining Vijay Damojipurapu, the author of Competing on Thought Leadership discusses the overlap between a good go-to market program and a good thought leadership program. He explains how to build compelling business narratives through his argument structure and the nine elements of exceptional content. Robert also shares some of his best success stories that show the immense positive impact of thought leadership.
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Elevating Go-To Market With Thought Leadership With Robert Buday
In this episode, I have the pleasure of hosting Bob Buday, who is the author of Competing on Thought Leadership. Welcome to the show, Bob.
It’s great to be here, Vijay.
Thought leadership is a very relevant topic in the first half of 2023, especially for the bigger brands. I’m looking forward to diving into these topics and various comments about how you define, build, measure, and so on. With that, the first question I have that’s top of mind for me as well as the readers, is how do you define go-to-market through the lens of thought leadership?
Before I define go-to-market, I need to explain what companies compete on thought leadership as I put it in my book and I should probably define thought leadership before I define go-to-market. I define thought leadership as the eminence that a firm or an individual brings to the market and the fame or the eminence that they achieve by developing, delivering and creating demand for a superior solution to a complex problem.
You might say, “What firms am I talking about?” I’m talking about firms who will bill you by the hour and who provide expertise. Management consulting firms, law firms, accounting firms, and architecture firms are firms whose people deliver the expertise like a software company. The other firms that are competing on thought leadership and go way beyond the management consulting sector, the only firms doing thought leadership several years ago when I got into this profession were tech firms that sell complex solutions that address complex problems.
PTC is a great example of that. Salesforce.com, Adobe, and any Microsoft product. All the Metaverse vendors. Selling a complex solution to a complex problem that not enough people understand the problem that they have that the Metaverse solves. These firms want their customers to view them as experts on those problems, not just as vendors of software and hardware.
The third category of B2B firms that increasingly want to be seen as thought leaders are financial services firms. I use that term broadly to mean everything from investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz or Kleiner Perkins to private equity firms. Increasingly and we have done research on this, those firms as well want to be seen as thought leaders. We have also surveyed clients of these firms, and they are looking for advice from all sorts of B2B firms that provide complex solutions to complex problems. They are looking for thought leadership from those firms, and those who show thought leadership on the issues of concern have a leg up in getting chosen.
With that definition of thought leadership in mind and the firms that I call competing on thought leadership, and I will explain that in a bit, I look at go-to-market as not just the firms that market thought leadership that gets articles into Harvard Business Review, write bestselling books and give keynote presentations at conferences that generate leads.
People ask for business cards and say, “I’d like to talk to you more,” after or between sessions. I look at go-to-market as not only the marketing but the development of superior expertise best done through primary research that compares best practices with worst practices. I also include go-to-market with the ability to scale some expertise. It’s the people you are sending out there to consult, deliver legal advice, build systems if you are an IT services firm or design a building if you are an architecture firm. Also, if you are a software company with a consulting unit like SAP has. With the people you send out into the field, the customer has said, “I loved your HBR article PTC. I need your experts to help me think through how to leverage the Internet of Things.”
The people you send out in the field are as smart as the “thought leaders” in the articles or the thought leader who gave the keynote presentation at some conference, which precipitated interest. I have a chapter in my book. It’s the smallest chapter. It should have been the largest chapter, in hindsight, about how to deliver thought leadership content.
That is typically the most overlooked aspect of thought leadership and the most important because you can have a bestselling book. You can have a cover article in Harvard Business Review. You can be looked upon as the firm that is the leading expert in solving this problem or that problem. If your people can’t deliver that expertise at a consistent level of quality and scale, what you will wind up doing is creating a market in which your competitors can deliver that expertise better and more consistently. You will be creating a market that your competitors will take away from you at some point.
Thanks for going over setting the foundation for how you define and view a partnership program and then how that place with a go-to-market motion. Some of the thoughts that come to my mind are that go-to-market is more around how and when you build a product and a service. Building a product and service that translates to revenue will necessitate. It will require understanding your customers very well.
Understanding the problems that they are dealing with. Understanding how to message it to them and how you reach out to them. Some of the essences are the principles of go-to-market. There’s a good overlap between a good go-to-market program and motion and a good thought leadership program, especially around customer problems and content. Once you generate the demand, are you ensuring that your in-house team is trained and can deliver on those skills either through services or products?
Any number of consulting and IT services firms you can be sure are looking at generative AI and trying to figure out how they develop new services. Customers are interested, and they want to know where they can use ChatGPT and other generative AI. There will be dozens of these things before long if there aren’t already. They’re like, “How do we create a consulting and IT service around generative AI? Clients are asking for it. Do we have it?”
The ones that win with the leading generative AI practices that grow the largest practices in helping their clients figure out where to use generative AI, build the systems, and capitalize on the technology will be those consulting in IT services firms that do primary research on how the best users of generative AI are using it, where they are not using it and why.
This is primary research. They compare that set of companies to the worst users of generative AI. The companies that have tried to use it here don’t work well. A wrong application was used over here. It’s the right application, but they implemented it poorly. Consulting on IT services firms that when what I think is going to be a big market for generative AI expertise from strategy to systems and maintenance are going to be the ones who study how the best and worst users of this technology, what they do differently to create a consulting and IT service that does more of the right things than the wrong things.
There are those practices given that companies began to use generative AI. There are those practices that are there for the taking that a software company, a consulting firm, or an IT services firm can learn from to help figure out and devise their service here. Those who develop superior service based on this research and then develop superior marketing and sales write the HBR article, the cover article of where generative AI is, how companies should use generative AI, and how they shouldn’t. We spend a lot of money and get no payback or negative payback. Those future thought leaders will be the ones who do the best primary research, marketing, and delivery.
Let’s switch gears a bit over here. I want to dive a bit more into how, why, and what led you to go down this path of building a thought leadership firm. Why did you write a book on thought leadership? Can you walk us through your career journey? What were the key points that led you to this moment over here?
My career started in 1977. I was a journalist. I was a sports writer first. I later became a business writer because there were no sports writing openings at a larger newspaper in Southern California whose doors I knocked on in 1980. They said, “Sorry. We don’t have any sports writing jobs, but we have a business writing job open. Are you interested?”
My father had his business, and I did a little work for him right after college. I had a wife and a kid on the way and I said, “I know a little bit about business. I will take a business writing job.” It was one of these turns in one’s career like that was a good turn going off that road. I was good as a sports writer but not great. Good sports writers are a dime a dozen. Many journalists want to be sports writers.
Like trying to be an actor in Hollywood, you are up against tons of people with incredible levels of talent. I was not a great sports writer. Maybe I could have developed to be. I found writing about businesses far more fascinating than writing about athletes and games. It was at that point in 1980 that the world of business journalism became to evolve and grow. That was probably in part because of the oil cutoffs in the ’70s.
The economy started to be an issue that newspapers put serious money into, including beefing up their business sections. I became a business journalist. I got bored at this large newspaper in California, the Orange County Register three years later. I struck out on my own. I started a healthcare trade publication and sold that within a year. I went to work for a large trade publisher in healthcare. I was tired of commuting a long distance to Los Angeles from Orange County. I was hired by a trade publisher called InformationWeek. They are still around.
They moved me to Boston. I spent two years in InformationWeek in the mid-‘80s. I needed to make more money. One of my sources for articles was a management consulting firm called Index Group and they were looking for somebody to handle their public relations and be the editor and ghostwriter of their publications. That was my entry into thought leadership in 1987. The first correct turn or right turn was out of sports journalism into business journalism. The second right turn or correct turn was out of business journalism into thought leadership.
If I recall, they are in the tech industry. They are one of the leaders back then in the tech space.
The firm I joined in ‘87 Index Group was bought by CSC, Computer Sciences Corp, the next year in ‘88 when CSC Index, which was later branded, was a $40 million firm. Talk about being lucky and being in the right place at the right time. It’s pure luck as I’m coming out of college, having an Advertising major living in England, and somebody saying, “I’m looking for somebody to market this rock and roll band. It’s called the Beatles.” Have you ever heard of them? I never heard of them. Marketing the big management consulting concept of the ’90s, business reengineering, that’s the place I landed.
It was there from ‘87 to ‘97 that I learned how thought leadership is done well and how the sausage is created through primary research looking at Michael Hammer. He was the Chief R&D Officer at this consulting firm. He and his colleagues were in the research part of the CSC Index and how we brought these concepts to market through Harvard Business Review articles, the bestselling book, conference presentations, and rest. This is the pre-World Wide Web. It was like getting an MBA in thought leadership at the time.
From that experience, I was hooked. I said, “This is a career. This is a serious profession of thought leadership.” I believed it was only going to grow because I saw it work so effectively at this firm. This is a secret to firms outside of the management consulting industry. They don’t know about thought leadership. They may have a corporate publication Oracle.
At a corporate publication was a bunch of journalists writing feature articles for Oracle. It was not thought leadership. It was not experts in Oracle writing articles. It was journalists writing feature stories for Oracle that you could have read in technology or other business publications. I thought leadership works if it’s done well. Other B2B firms and other consulting firms are going to discover this because not every consulting firm was as good at thought leadership as the firm I worked at that time.
You did mention quite a few times that leadership is more prevalent with consulting firms. If you go back to your background at CSC Index, it’s a technology firm that did thought leadership very well. What advice would you give to the technology companies as to why they should invest in a thought leadership program if they are not already? How does one know that it’s a good thought leadership program?
Technology companies need to understand what thought leadership is and is not and why their clients are looking for thought leadership, and of what types. We surveyed 5,000 business executives who were big buyers of IT services and technology, consulting, and other business products and services. We asked them to rate nine what we call hallmarks of thought leadership. “Which ones were more important? What do you want to see?”
The most important one was what we called evidence, which is proof that the solution that somebody’s recommending in their article, book or presentation works through real case examples. Customers who have adopted the solution and gotten big benefits were number one. The novelty was number two. “Tell me something I don’t already know. If you are telling me something I already know, why would I switch to your firm from my current vendor?”
My advice for technology firms is to understand first what attracts buyers of their products, especially the non-IT business executive. Proof that the software has helped the customers have decreased cycle time, increased revenue, increased profitability, and all that. Give me real stories. Give me the real names of companies and people who are vouching for this software and technology. Otherwise, it’s not believable.Technology firms must understand what attract buyers of their products. These are proof of how the software has helped whatever customers gained in revenue and profitability. Click To Tweet
The disguised client case studies are good, but they are not nearly as good as customer case studies in which the company and people in those companies are talking and identified because they are a big, “Show it to me. I don’t believe it,” factor because it’s so much hype, especially around technology. Look at what’s happened with Metaverse.
Metaverse was a concept that was at the top of the world circa years ago, and then it’s fallen off the end of a table while generative AI is displaced from a technology company standpoint. I believe that’s in part because the technology firms pedaling the Metaverse largely did a poor job collecting the case studies or stories of companies that they use augmented in virtual reality.
It’s a little short of what the purest definition of the Metaverse is but they didn’t have enough case examples that show if you use the metaverse in things like marketing or simulating things, whether it’s training pilots or doctors how to perform surgery, without those case examples, people are not going to buy these headsets.
Can I challenge you a bit on that? The reason is it also has to do somewhat with the market adoption of this technology. It might be ahead of its time. You and I know Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. He is one of the endorsers of your book. I want to get to how you got his endorsement. Coming back to the point I was making, it might be a climb in the market where it’s still too early.
The reason why I bring those up is if you look at the proliferation of smartphones now versus part of the earliest makers of the smartphones laid back in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, it was Microsoft. The market is not ready. How they presented the product was not done right. A lot of these things were missing at that time. Coming back to my earlier point, it might be that Metaverse is still relevant, but that’s not the time for it yet. We don’t know. Only time will tell.
Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm says you need to collect those maybe a few examples that are out there of companies that have capitalized on this emerging technology or new technology. If you look at the revenue of SAP from 1985 to 1995 and they were a public company back then, you can see how they slow increase in sales and then business reengineering concept, which is the thought leadership that sold SAP R3, ERP software at the time and reengineering as a consulting practice by ’93 and ‘94. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, but you’ll see sales of SAP and ERP spiking upwards.
The firm I worked at and other consulting firms who came up with their versions of business reengineering, McKinsey, Capgemini, and all the others like Accenture and Deloitte made the market for SAP and ERP at the time. It’s a marketing that SAP could have done but didn’t. I say Metaverse. How long has Metaverse been at this? Several years. It must have some beta customers or early users collect success stories.
Find out the surgeons who have been, through Metaverse, enabled surgical procedures and who honed their craft in using some heart surgery tool and then used it out in the operating room. Collect those stories. Get people to talk about the improvements that were made. Tell those stories in a way that the average executive can understand. Executives will take notice of this.
The thought leadership marketing skills at many technology companies are need to be improved to be able to capture those stories, learn from those examples and take them to market. That is part of the go-to-market. Do customer research of this type and leadership research. Capture it. Put it in language that the average non-technology executive can understand because you are going to have to sell that person, not just the CIO.
You touched upon several important points as to how one can recognize and create an effective thought leadership program. What helps our readers is if you can walk us through a go-to-market success story around thought leadership. You did mention CSC. It’s that one because you had a front-row seat over there. If you can walk us through that, that’d be great.
That’s an old story. I will give you that quickly, and I will give you a newer story. The CSC Index business reengineering success story went from roughly 1987 to 1997. The way that I call the sausage that created the content of business reengineering was a research program much like the corporate executive board. The corporate executive board sold to Gartner but a multi-company funded annual research service that Mike Hammer and CSC Index co-owned for about ten years. That research was all case study research.
The companies that funded the research opened up their doors on whatever the research topic was and we talked about how they were dealing with the issue. As Mike Hammer said many years ago to a reporter when reengineering was big, the reporter said, “Mike, how did you invent reengineering?” He said, “I did not invent reengineering. I discovered it.”
What he meant by that was he discovered it in looking at the practices of the companies that were getting the biggest benefits from IT back in the late-’80s and early-’90s compared against the companies that got little or no value from IT. What was the difference? The difference was they built their systems across functions rather than built siloed systems.
Everybody knows that, but it was new at the time. It was a big idea. That was the research part of thought leadership. In the marketing part of thought leadership, we had an extensive series of golf events. We were in Harvard Business Review several times. We had our McKinsey quarterly-type publication insights.
We had people on our lecture circuit. We had the ability to wine and dine them. It has prestigious resorts and club resorts. We had a bestselling book co-authored by Michael Hammer and James Champy, Reengineering the Corporation. We sold two million copies in the ’90s. PR was going for us too. We had a cover article about reengineering in Fortune Magazine in ‘93 and the classic reengineering article in 1990, Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate by Michael Hammer. We had all the pieces of the thought leadership marketing mix pre-World Wide Web.
What was your role back then? How were you working with Mike and the team then?
I was the Director of Marketing. I was the number two person in marketing. I handled our publications like the McKinsey quarterly-type journal. I handled our public relations and our survey-based research done for PR purposes as opposed to the thought leadership that Hammer and the research team put around Mike in this business they co-owned.
I was an occasional pinch hitter researcher in that research service. It was called Prism so I got to see how that business operated. That was a great experience to see how the research team came up with ideas. That’s an old success story. A new one is some training that I have been doing for a very large consultant in an IT services firm. I have trained in eight classes, all virtual classes of between 10 and 20 people.
I had 22 people in a couple of sessions over the last few years. One of the most important skills in thought leadership is content development and writing, which is what I call constructing compelling narratives or agreements. I have taught this course eight times to these groups and they are in the thought leadership research function at this big consulting and IT services firm.
After each class, I have had people come back to me and say, “This is enlightening. It’s helped.” When we are done with a research study trying to analyze, we have all this primary research data. We have got survey data, case study data, and secondary research. It’s helped us once we have a raw idea of what we want to say to put it into a compelling narrative or argument. I have gotten a lot of joy out of teaching this class eight times. There will be a ninth class in June 2023, and then they want to go for more.
There’s something that caught my attention as you are telling this experience of yours. I’m sure you must have come across a lot of folks, especially in the tech industry where product marketing function and even content marketing function, not just PRN corporate communications, are all expected to craft narratives that will shift the thinking of the buyers and the user audience. What would you suggest? Do you have a framework? How do you tease out how to build those narratives?
I do have a framework and it’s what I call the problem solution, argument structure or narrative structure. It takes the form of an outline. First is a high-level outline and then through iteration with the subject experts and if you want to call them ghostwriters or content developers, they go through this sixth part argument structure and build a compelling argument.
That needs to stay in outline form until all parties have agreed that we have a solid argument and lined up all the data or all the examples we need. The logic is rigorous. It’s unassailable. We have something new, and that’s proven. We have the evidence. At that point, somebody is ready to turn into pros and maybe you could use generative AI to turn this outline into pros.
The mistake I see having been made so many times over the last years since they have been in this career is that a writer and an expert or 2, 3, or more get together for a couple of hours. They talk through an article and then write their drafts. Something he or she heard, the experts look at it. They don’t think it’s good. It might be well written but it’s superficial and not convincing.
They go back and forth. Weeks later, you are on draft seventeen and maybe the thinking is a little better but nobody’s satisfied. The writer is pulling out his hair like, “I can’t please these people.” The shortcoming there is using pro writing to build an argument, and it’s a very inefficient way to build an argument.
The best way to build an argument I have found is by working with people through a structured outline where you start with what is the exact problem in the world that we are focusing on. Who has that problem? What type of companies? What executives in that company have that problem? What is the problem? How much is it costing those companies in terms of time, money and market share? It starts with the problem and ends with the superior solution.The best way to build an argument starts by determining the exact problem to be addressed and ends with the superior solution. Click To Tweet
The argument needs to be deconstructed over typically weeks, sometimes months to come up with a rigorous argument. What you will discover through this process is, “We want to be able to say this but we have no evidence.” “Where do we get the evidence?” “We think that customers implemented the system this way and they got big benefits. We think they did that but somebody going to need to talk to them.” “Who’s going to talk to them?” “Let’s collect that case study.”
We did that. We interviewed them. It’s exactly what we think is the new and better solution. We need to collect 2 or 3 more examples or more than that to bring some serious evidence to bear. The worst approach to thought leadership is rushing very quickly from an initial discussion between some subject experts rushing to pros and it rarely turns into serious substantive points of view that the solution is fundamentally different from anything else you have read out there.
You also mentioned in your book about there is a strong connection between a good thought leadership program, content program, and demand gen. If the partnership is done right, demand gen will be the outcome.
Thought leadership should be done for no other purpose than eminence and revenue. If your thought leadership programs can’t take some credit for new revenue coming in, then your thought leadership program is not working. I have heard over the years, “Thought leadership should not be measured by least generated.” “I say, “BS. It should be generated,” as long as you are collecting the data and your salespeople are telling you honestly, and that often doesn’t happen.
Salespeople like to take full credit for converting a lead or opening a door even if it was a publication that an executive first read and then talked to one of the sales executives. These companies are not in the business of giving conferences and publishing management journals. They are in the business of selling stuff. Thought leadership has to help them sell stuff. If it’s not helping them sell stuff, then it’s not effective. It doesn’t mean thought leadership is the wrong approach. It’s that it’s not being done well enough.
One of the questions that keep coming up is about an investment thought leadership program and how we know if it’s working or not. Fairly if done right, it should translate to a measurable pipeline and business generated, at the end of the day for sales. I’m opening the page in your book and something that you mentioned is how you know that you got a good partnership program and more importantly, how do you know that you have developed exceptional content.
Let me read it out for the readers over here. You have nine elements of exceptional content, which is it has to be relevant, novel, deep, and feasible to implement evidence-based, illuminating, irrefutable, clear, and stimulating. I like the way how you define the criteria so that it’s not subjective. It’s not like saying, “The CMO said he likes it or she likes it. That’s why I’m going to go with this,” versus the CRO or the salesperson. It’s not based on someone’s opinion. It has to be objective.
When it’s a subjective discussion that gets into what it’s good, and somebody else says, “I don’t think this content is good,” the discussions go nowhere because they can’t. Having an objective or more objective set of criteria helps people understand, “What are we building toward here?” You say having proof for evidence is the most critical. Our surveys say that proof for evidence is the most critical piece of thought leadership. It’s proof that the recommended solution has worked in the form of real case examples. You have no case examples. I would argue that your thought leadership and that content are not going to be effective and generate interest.
Your point is valid, especially if you have a product or a service where they have seen success stories but how about at a time when they are still in the early days and are testing it out? They don’t have a success story yet.
It’s harder to create thought leadership. You could create thought leadership around the problem to show how well you understand the problem. Geoffrey Moore would probably say, “They are early adopters. They will put their money on all sorts of things that are not to be effective yet.” That’s a very small part of your target audience. Your early adopters might play with that.
At some point, it’s going to have to show up in their business. They move the dial. Otherwise, they are going to face pressure from above like, “What are we spending on Metaverse? $100 million? What did it do?” We don’t know yet, especially during recessions and economies. Those types of investments tend to get wiped out where somebody can’t even say it’s moved the needle to any extent.
On a lighter note, here’s one final question for you. You earned the endorsement of Geoffrey Moore and even Ram Charan. These are big names in the business world and these are advisors to the C-level folks at Fortune 5 and Fortune 10 companies. How did you get them to endorse your book? What’s your secret sauce there?
I know both of them. I know somebody who knew Geoffrey Moore very well and he got the book in front of Geoffrey, and that is my colleague Alan Alpert, who we did a podcast interview with Geoffrey Moore. Alan knew Geoffrey and Geoffrey got the book and decided to write what he wrote. I know Ram Charan, and a good friend of mine has been working with Ram to help publish how many dozen books that Ram has published over the years.
I got Ram to read the book, and Ram was positive. Ram is one of the people whom all sorts of individuals and firms can learn from about thought leadership. He has done an amazing job in bringing new and important ideas to market. Ram is the perfect example of somebody to whom I say, “You need evidence.” If you read his books, he’s got real evidence and typically from firms that he identifies and CEOs whom he works with. Ram is an amazing individual and so is Geoffrey in using real examples in their work. It makes it much more believable.
It goes back to the point that you mentioned in the book. You took the example of Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. He and his team spent five years going and digging through all the research materials and the financial report of these various companies. They came up with a “simple framework” for how to identify whether you got the right ingredients to go from good to great. It all boils down to the research element and the case study’s simple points.
Jim Collins has done that several times. His first big book was Built to Last, which he co-wrote with Jerry Porras. That was based on the same research model. We are going to interview and research a set of companies that have had exceptional financial performance over some period and compare them with competitors that have not had the same financial success. We are going to compare what these two companies and different industries did differently.
Built to Last was based on that formula and so was the second big book, Good to Great. He’s got a bunch of researchers in this company who do copious amounts of secondary and primary research. That’s why Jim’s ideas have stood the test of time. Even though some of the companies that he said are on the great list or the best list, some of them have fallen off their search. That’s in In Search of Excellence, Waterman and Peters. A lot of these very successful companies fell off their perch later.
That’s the challenge. First of all, to get up to the top ranks is a big challenge, but to stay is not easy. We all know the different cases, and that’s a topic for a different episode for sure. One final question for you is if you were to give advice to your younger self, what advice would you give to your younger self who’s starting the journey early on?
This would have been my younger self wanting to be a sports writer or starting to be a sports writer. There’s a great need to help people and firms explain complex things compellingly. There’s a big need for that, and sports writing doesn’t fit that bill. I have thought about this over the years. This is about writing about the business and economics of sports, which nobody was writing about back then. If I was to be a sports writer, that’s where I should have focused. It took me ten years to discover this field of thought leadership.
The second thing is my college major, which was Communication Studies, which is the art and science of persuasion. I should have used that to guide my career for those first ten years. I happened to work at the college newspaper as a sports writer and fell in love with sports writing at the time. Listen to what courses in college you loved the most because that’s a good sign of your career interests later.
Thank you so much for the time and wisdom that you shared here. For you, the reader, if you have not yet bought the book, buy the book. It’s been a great read for me and reinforced some of the lessons that I can apply in a B2B go-to-market space. Get the book, Competing on Thought Leadership by Bob Buday. Thank you so much. Wishing you the very best.
Thank you. Same to you.
- Competing on Thought Leadership
- Crossing the Chasm
- Reengineering the Corporation
- Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate
- Good to Great
- Built to Last
- In Search of Excellence
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