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Groundbreaking CEO, Christie Hefner, Internationally Known; Locally Involved

When you talk to Christie Hefner, who’s backed by unwavering confidence that you’d think someone would have to train for in order to display so cooly, you start to understand that some things just are what they are. You see that confidence when you examine her decision to take on the position of Playboy Enterprises’ president at the age of 29. She talks as if her successful efforts to move said company into a digital expansion where no other publication had gone before, was no different from picking between the steak or the chicken at dinner.

In 1982, Christie took the reins and stepped into the role of president of Playboy. With that new title came additional weight as the company had run into financial issues, but with fearless ambition (and with lack of an MBA she reminds us), Christie greeted the business that she would spend a good chunk of her career navigating and growing into an immensely successful legacy.

Taking over as CEO in 1988 and simultaneously becoming one of the youngest female CEOs of a major public company at the time, Christie oversaw Playboy’s expansion from print into cable TV, video production, online accessibility and e-commerce, international publishing, and licensing of the Playboy brand. The company’s revenues grew from $76 million in 1988 to over $500 million by the late 1990s under her leadership.

During Christie’s tenure, Playboy’s international presence expanded by launching over 20 foreign editions of Playboy magazine and taking the company public on international stock exchanges. She modernized Playboy with investments in digital media and entertainment. As a supporter of women’s empowerment, she pushed for Playboy to feature more substantive articles and accomplished women in addition to the infamous pictorials.

Christie Hefner established the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in 1979. The award honors individuals who have made significant contributions in the effort to protect and enhance First Amendment rights for all Americans, having recognized over 150 visionaries to date. The award nominees traditionally have come from the areas of journalism, education, publishing, law, government, and arts and entertainment, and recipients include high school students, journalists, and educators. The first award winners were named in 1980.

Christie Hefner presents at TEDxFargo

When Christie was in the role of CEO at Playboy, she took on another role as project director to aid the opening of a healthcare facility called the CORE Center. The CORE Center would go on to be the first comprehensive outpatient facility in the Midwest for people living with AIDS. The project surpassed its goal of $25 million and raised more than $30 million by 1998 and opened its doors in October of that year. The Center has remained one of the largest HIV/ AIDS clinics in the United States. In an interview with TimeOut Chicago in 2005 Christie said this:

In the early ’80s, [Playboy] started to write about AIDS with the goal of countering the scare tactics that were out there about transmission. [Playboy] historically has been an important force as far as issues related to health and particularly issues that also touch on human sexuality.”

Christie Hefner shakes hands with Emerging Prairie co-founder Greg Tehven

In her last year as CEO, Playboy generated close to $1 billion in global retail sales, with 80% of the sales to women. When she left the company in 2009, over 40% of her executives were women.

In her years after stepping down as Playboy CEO, Christie has served on numerous corporate and philanthropic boards and was named one of America’s most influential women executives by Fortune magazine. And, believe it or not, one of those boards is one that locals of the FM area may be quite familiar with—R.D. Offutt Company (more on that from the board member herself later).

Beyond her corporate achievements, Christie is known for her enduring commitment to social change and advocacy work, particularly in the areas of social justice, civil liberties, and women’s empowerment. She is an avid supporter of free speech and speaks highly in her support of the First Amendment.

When you look over Christie Hefner’s resume, you can understand why many look at her in awe—she accomplished so much during her 25+ years of leadership at Playboy and in the years after. You could describe her as an unparalleled entrepreneurial spirit, but you should know there’s more to her than that—Christie Hefner waivers not in decision-making for a billion-dollar company, but at naming her favorite movie—a reminder that she is human after all. When she visited the FM area to speak at the annual TEDxFargo event in July, we had the chance to pick her brain on leadership, courage, and everything in between while reliving some of the critical moments in Playboy’s history.

Q&A with Christie Hefner

*Questions/answers were edited for conciseness.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about the First Amendment and civility, as you [spoke on it at TEDxFargo] and also touched on it in an interview with the Inforum. So, reiterate a bit why that is so important to you.

A: I grew up with an interest in reading and writing and then got interested in journalism. My first job out of college was working as a film critic for the Boston Phoenix, which is no longer around, but was one of those free alternative weeklies that became very popular and focused on a combination of arts and culture coverage, progressive politics, and investigative journalism. I started with a strong interest in the power of the written word and the importance of journalism. When I wound up coming to work at Playboy, thinking I would only be there for a couple of years initially, nevertheless, I was offered the opportunity to join the board of the American Civil Liberties Union—which I did for about 20 years. When I was on the board of the Playboy Foundation, we started the HMH First Amendment Awards, which were designed to celebrate, in contemporary times, the battles that people were fighting— whether they were whistleblowers, librarians, school book editors, or authors. It’s been a throughline for me. Christie Offutt originally asked if I would consider coming out for TEDx and I talked to Greg [Tehven] about it. We got on the phone, and he asked, ‘Well, what would you like to talk about?’ And I said, ‘What do you think people would be interested in?’ We just started kicking things around and
that seemed to resonate.

Q: You talk a little bit about the local press in your TEDx Talk. Tell me why that is so important to you as well?

A: I worked with the Chicago Reader, the first alternative weekly in the country, in helping it transition to a nonprofit business model, which is not the right business model for all press, but it’s nice to have that as an option. And, out of that, I have started working with a couple of large foundations to raise charitable money for independent local media. So to answer the question of why I think it’s important—there are a number of reasons. First of all, I think we’re all conscious of the fact that trust in many institutions, the media included, is much lower than it used to be. That’s a problem because, as I mentioned in my remarks, we should look to the media for information, for perspective to hold government accountable, whether it’s the school board or the state legislature; so if people aren’t trusting the media or if they’re only going to their media bubble, democracy itself is harmed. And, in fact, there’s a fair amount of research that when a local newspaper dies—because there are now what is called news deserts, where there is not a local newspaper anymore— the percentage of people who vote goes down, the percentage of incumbents who get reelected goes up, the confidence in government goes down. So at some level, I think local media is really important just in terms of democracy. And then there are issues like, there are about 100 local media outlets in Chicago in all different languages because Chicago is very multicultural. They don’t all publish physical print papers, some of them are podcasts, and some of them are digital and print. But, they were really instrumental and effective in educating people around the census, because there was a lot of misinformation that was leading some people to feel they shouldn’t fill out the census, because maybe they didn’t have their green card. They were really instrumental in educating people about vaccinations and about voting registration. Some of it is just about a trusted source of information. The last piece of it is I think it’s a pipeline for both stories and journalists. Chris Hayes at MSNBC started his career at The Reader. There are a lot of people, whether they’re arts columnists, or political columnists, who got their first jobs in smaller independent places, whether they were in smaller markets or big markets. And so for all those reasons, I think that it’s really important for readers and advertisers to support media.

Q: You were 29 years old when you became President of Playboy—why do you think you had the courage to take that step?

A: In hindsight, it was just a WTF moment. I mean, really, what was I thinking? But, contributing factors would include, I was raised by my mother—who I’m still very close to, she’s 97 and she’s fabulous—and I had what every child hopes and deserves to have, which is unconditional love and the belief in me that I could do whatever I wanted. I had a really good education, a great high school [education] and I went to Brandeis University. So, I felt like I learned critical thinking skills, communication skills, and useful skills beyond business, per se.

I spent the early years at Playboy taking some business courses in marketing, strategy, organizational development, and culture, so I had some background, and I have a high degree of intellectual curiosity. I’m a pretty avid reader and a strong believer in building a network of people whom you can look to for advice and counsel. I actually have said more than once to groups of women, particularly women because often they are encouraged to find a mentor—don’t turn [finding a mentor] into a professional version of looking for Prince Charming, [thinking] ‘If I don’t find the one then I can’t have a happy life.’ Build a network, because everyone can build a network. The advantage of that is the person that you turn to when you’re trying to decide if you should move to a different company is maybe not the person you turn to when you’re having negotiating problems over salary or the person you turn to when you’re having personal problems. So, I built a network of people in the different industries that we were in that I felt I could draw upon. I had been [at Playboy] for seven years, and I had been on the board for three years, so it wasn’t like I was brand new, but there’s still an element of it that is, as I say, in hindsight, very difficult for me to look back on and think, ‘Why did I think I could do that?’

“…[Negtoating] is a learnable skill, and a lot of what makes people successful, in my experiences with negotiators, are the same skills that are useful beyond negotiating because it has to do with a certain kind of empathy for the other point of view… That sense of seeing both perspectives or in some cases, multiple perspectives, that sense of empathy—that’s a pretty useful way to navigate the world, even if you’re not in a negotiation.”

Q: Talking about negotiation, do you have resources that you would recommend for people wanting to dive into that more, and to build confidence in their skills?

A: I’m a very big believer in the value of that as a skill, so I’m glad you asked about it. There’s a great expression: You won’t get in life what you deserve, you’ll get in life what you negotiate for. I think that sometimes people think that negotiation is something you need if you’re [working] in the State Department or if you’re a mediator, and other people don’t. But if you really think about it, it’s everything from [deciding where you’re] going to have dinner tonight, how much screen time do [your kids] get to have, to when you’re wanting to apply for a promotion.

I do believe very strongly in it, and it is a learnable skill. I don’t have any single [resource], there are many books on it, and most universities offer courses on it. What I do say is that it’s a learnable skill, and a lot of what makes people successful, in my experiences with negotiators, are the same skills that are useful beyond negotiating, because it has to do with a certain kind of empathy for the other point of view. If I’m negotiating with you, and I’m going into it knowing what I want without really bothering to learn what you want and what you need, the odds are that it’s not going to turn out as well as if I understand what you need and why you need it. I can help solve your problem and needs at the same time as mine. That sense of seeing both perspectives or in some cases, multiple perspectives, that sense of empathy—that’s a pretty useful way to kind of navigate the world, even if you’re not in a negotiation.

Q: What was your experience like when you joined the MPA (The Association of Magazine Media, formerly known as Magazine Publishers Association until 2010) board, I believe there were only two women and yourself at the time.

A: A woman named Gertrude Crane, whose family founded a family of magazines called Cranes, there’s Crain’s Chicago Business, Crain’s Detroit Business, and Crain’s New York Business, and they also own Ad Age, was on the board; a woman named Pat Carbine, who was the publisher of Ms. Magazine; and me, and the board was about 30 people. Pat and I spoke up, but Gertrude [didn’t], maybe because it was a generational thing. She was a lovely and smart woman, but I think she came of age at a time when women didn’t tend to assert themselves quite as much. But, I always felt whether I was the only woman in the room or one of the few women in the room, that if I was in the room, I was there to try and make a contribution. That was a combination of hopefully asking good questions and then also making comments.

“We concluded that our most valuable asset, given the market, was not our publishing expertise, but the brand.”

I met Christi Offutt when she was about to become CEO [of RDO], succeeding her father. We met at a conference for a group that I helped—a nonprofit called Women Corporate Directors that works to get more women on boards and they have chapters all over the world. They do a global conference once a year and at this, it was maybe eight years ago, I had been asked to moderate a panel on governance in family business and Christi was one of the panelists. So as you know, if you’re doing an interview or you’re monitoring panels, you do your research ahead of time to find out about the companies and the people, then you do the pre-call, and then you do the event. I had learned a fair amount about the RDO company and after the fact, Christi said, ‘In conjunction with my becoming CEO, two of our directors are going to retire and I honestly came to this conference in hopes that I might meet someone who I would be interested in having on our board. We don’t have any women on our board, I would love to talk to you about that.’ And I actually said to her at the time, ‘I am very impressed by your company, and your family, and I really like you personally, but I know nothing about the ag business, construction business, farming, and I just think there are other people who can bring more into the boardroom.’ She had a very interesting and wise answer. She said, ‘I have subject experts. I’m looking for a strategist, someone who understands marketing, and someone who has some sensitivity for family business.’ I thought, ‘Okay, those are things I actually do feel like bringing into the boardroom.’

But I tell that story because I said to her at the time, ‘I don’t have a problem being the only new director, I don’t have a problem being the only female director, that won’t stop me from, from engaging, and trying to contribute; but group dynamics are such that given that you’re just becoming CEO, it’s going to be a new dynamic with the board. You’ll have an easier time if you put two new people in that room than just one person.’ That’s just the way dynamics work. So, she found a second director, who also happens to be a woman… But from the beginning, even in that situation, where mostly you’re just asking questions—I’m pretty comfortable doing that.

Being so active in the theater as she was growing up, and working as a film critic before her time at Playboy, we thought it was only right to ask Christie if she had any film recommendations for our readers.

“Well, I’m really looking forward to seeing Oppenheimer, but I haven’t seen it. I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan, and I think it’s a fascinating subject. So, of what’s out there right now, that would probably be my my top recommendation.”

There’s a great expression that is: Are you listening to learn? Or are you listening to respond? If I’m talking to, for example, MBA students who are always super smart and very acutely aware of how smart they are, I say, ‘Stop listening to respond, you’re not really hearing me, you’re just waiting for me to pause so you can make your super smart comment.’ And if that’s what’s going on in a boardroom, or in an executive committee room, a newsroom, or in any room, then you’re not getting the best ideas.

Q: You said you just felt comfortable in those situations. Have you always been like that or was that learned?

A: Pretty much. I did theater from the time I was very young. I was at a private grammar school, and then my mother remarried, and in junior high, I went to public schools. At the private grammar school, we did a production of Sleeping Beauty all in French in fifth grade, I played sleeping beauty. I did theater in junior high, high school, and college, and I spent six summers at the National Music Camp (in Interlochen, Michigan). Along with debate—which I never studied, but I think is great and should be required—I think those courses give you a sort of sense of self-confidence and the ability to speak in public and organize your thoughts. That probably helped along the way. It certainly helped with public speaking, although when I first was at Playboy and was asked to give a talk, I’d never given a speech before. I wrote out every word, and I read it. It was well written—I’m a pretty good writer—but I could tell early into it that it wasn’t working. I’m up there reading the speech, and [I’m] not connecting with people. So, I vowed at that moment that I would train myself and force myself to get away from that, and I did. I moved from reading a speech to an outline, and then bullet points, and now I don’t take any notes with me. I’ve just come to believe over the years that, yes, there’s a reasonable risk that there’s something that you thought you would like to say that in the moment you forget, but the tradeoff for that is you’re so present in the moment. If you open yourself up to that, in my experience, you are very likely to be able to say something that comes to you in the moment, and because of the feeling in the room, your connection to people, and letting them feel they’re connecting to you, it’s a good trade-off.

Q: You ultimately changed the trajectory of Playboy when it went digital. What was your mindset and your decision-making process like during that time?

A: When you talk about strategy for business, it all comes down to the intersection between opportunity and your assets. When I took over the company, it was in financial trouble. The first few years, were really just about selling the businesses that weren’t working. If I had an MBA, I would say, we rationalized the lines of business; I don’t have an MBA, so I say, ‘We dumped the losers.’ Cutting costs and getting the balance sheet in order, paying down debt, getting the company to be cash positive, right-sizing it, and all that. Then the question becomes where’s your growth going to come from? The traditional growth strategy for a company that had a successful magazine, whether it was Time Magazine or anybody else, was that you should either buy or launch other magazines because that’s your most valuable asset—you know how to publish. But we tried to at least challenge ourselves to think before we say for sure that’s what we should do. We just try to think a little bit more expansively about what our assets were. I hired a small strategic planning firm and put together a group, drawing on my network both internally and externally, around the question of, ‘What’s the intersection of market opportunities and our assets?’ We concluded that our most valuable asset, given the market, was not our publishing expertise, but the brand. That the brand represented a style of content, it represented a lifestyle, and if we could leverage that, that was a bigger opportunity. That was partly because the market was changing, and cable television was just beginning to explode. When I was growing up, there were literally three channels of television, the three broadcast networks. Nobody sought out a channel, they sought out a TV show. But all of a sudden, there were 50 channels that were being rolled out across the United States and home video. So it just seemed to us that the potential for branded destination viewing on video and TV was there. That period in the 80s is exactly when not just Playboy TV, but Disney, CNN, and MTV, and all of these brands [began] with the idea that you would turn on MTV, ESPN, Playboy, or Disney. Then once we made that successful move, it became more logical to think about what the potential was as the internet was expanding.

Did You Know?
Christie Hefner is more connected to the Fargo-Moorhead area than you think. She is on the advisory board at R.D. Offutt Companies and serves as a consultant for Forum Communications!

What was early on called new media, which was like the early versions of digital, there would be conferences, and I would go and look for companies to partner with where we could provide content and they could provide format and distribution. We worked with IBM and did a multimedia Playboy interview disc, we worked with Philips to do a series of sensual massage discs, and we worked with a different company and did a multimedia art project—all to learn what it meant if everything was digitized, whether it’s text or photo, or audio or video, everything can be combined. It just seemed like that was where the world was going. At the time the big internet providers were AOL and Prodigy and CompuServe, so a couple of the magazine companies had licensed magazine names to one of those services that would just pay them some money and it was almost like they had a little mall of different magazine brands, but they control the content and commerce—and, I was just more ambitious than that, I guess is the truth of it. At one of the conferences I went to, I met a man named Jim Clark, who had started a firm that was originally called Mosaic but became Netscape, which was one of the first ways that people started to actually access the internet and the World Wide Web. We were chatting, and I knew who he was, and I told him I had this vision of what would become Playboy online, but I don’t know how to do it. This is around 1992. He said, ‘Well, I could build you an interface where people could just type in, and then they’d be on your site, and you could do whatever you wanted on it.’ I never thought for a moment that he couldn’t do it, because he was already famous, but I did think it would probably be super, super expensive. …He said it wouldn’t be very expensive and said, ‘I think it’d be cool, I’ll do it.’ So, Jim Clark actually built the first physical infrastructure for Playboy. com and we became the first national magazine to go online and create our own site. Then, we had gaming and social and commerce and advertising and then, as other countries moved in that direction, we looked for partners and did that overseas with our international publishing partners, then we went into mobile, and took the brand through licensing into a lot of consumer products. It’s a great example of challenging yourself to ask the question, ‘What business are we in?’ In hindsight, it’s really interesting to look back because you think Playboy, maybe was a more natural brand to go online and to go into TV; but in truth, at the time, Time Warner-owned cable systems and owned Time Magazine, and yet, never thought to launch a cable news network. The challenge for companies that are very successful in one business that becomes their legacy business is that they rarely innovate when the market changes. Kodak created digital film and didn’t take it to market because they thought it would cannibalize the physical film business. Blockbuster could have owned everything that Netflix owns, but they were making a lot of money from late fees and they didn’t want to risk cannibalizing that. It’s one of the business challenges that I work with companies on all the time, which is how to constantly innovate and how to constantly challenge conventional thinking.

“The challenge for companies that are very successful in one business that becomes their legacy business is that they rarely innovate when the market changes. Kodak created digital film and didn’t take it to market because they thought it would cannibalize the physical film business. Blockbuster could have owned everything that Netflix owns, but they were making a lot of money from late fees and they didn’t want to risk cannibalizing that. It’s one of the business challenges that I work with companies on all the time, which is how to constantly innovate and how to constantly challenge conventional thinking.”

Q: Bouncing off that, what advice do you have for businesses navigating such a quickly changing environment? For example, with AI?

A: Well, I’ll go back to the earlier conversation about culture and building a culture that is made up of people who are intellectually agile and are able to challenge conventional thinking. I made the comment in my TED Talk, and it’s true, there’s so much research that says, if you want to have the most creative ideas, the best solutions for any situation, any problem, then put a group of people together who have different backgrounds, different experiences, and different vantage points. If you’re trying to build a company that is needing to innovate in a fast-changing world, one of the things you for sure don’t want to do, is have a company where the people in leadership all went to the same schools, are all the same gender, and same race—that’s just not going to get you a very good outcome. I would definitely say it starts with that.

I’m also a big believer in partnership, and this was true, even in the 80s, when it was very much in vogue to grow through acquisition. I’ve done acquisitions, and I’m not against them, but there’s a lot to be gained from partnering. I think, especially in a world where all companies basically have to think of themselves as technology companies, whether you’re a fashion company or a bank. I used to say all companies are media companies by which I meant, you need to be able to tell your story to your stakeholders. I used to use the example in trying to describe how everybody’s product, now, is like a story. Like free-range chicken, right? Why would you pay more for free-range chickens? It’s a story. I like the idea of the story of happy chickens, not in a terrible little cage—they are out, wandering in the grass eating, and I’m buying that story. I do still think that in shorthand, every company is a media company, but for sure, now every company is a technology company. And AI is a great example because it’s going to impact everything from how companies recruit, to how they set up their legal departments, to how they engage with their consumers. I’m fundamentally an optimist about everything, politics, business, and relationships, so I am on the side of, it has a lot of promise, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t have risk, but it does a lot of promise. Just this morning, I was listening to NPR, and seven tech companies have committed to work with the administration on a voluntary initial list of regulations that include an external review of any new AI before it goes to market and includes more commitment to transparency, so anything that is generated by AI has to be clearly labeled that that’s how it was generated. It was all the big companies. The fact that the tech companies themselves have been saying for some time now, we need a regulatory framework is what’s encouraging.

Q: You spoke a little bit about how you got connected with Christi at RDO. I think it’s very cool that you are involved with the Fargo community. How many times have you visited the area? What do you think?

A: I was asked by a number of people during the rehearsal time on Wednesday and then at TEDx if this was my first trip to Fargo, which is a completely logical question to ask me, but I get to actually say no!

We have four board meetings a year for RDO, most of them are here, and I’ve been on that board for eight years. So [I’ve been to Fargo] at least, two dozen times over the years; and not all the time, but some of the time when I come here for the RDO board meeting, I stay an extra day to work with Bill Marcil Jr. and the Forum on strategy, which has been going great. All our papers are profitable now and we’ve had really robust digital offerings, we’ve invested in more journalism in all the markets, we actually bought the paper in Rochester, Minnesota, and we’re buying TV stations.

I find [Fargo] a delightful town, and the people are really lovely. At the [TEDxFargo] speaker’s dinner Wednesday night, they had the speakers, the sponsors, and previous speakers, and the mayor of Fargo came over and introduced himself and said, “We’re so happy that you’re here.” You know, that doesn’t usually happen in a big city. And there’s something very nice about that. Chicago is a very friendly big city, and people who move there from particularly New York or LA will often comment on that, that people are more engaged in the life of the city, it’s less siloed, and people work across industries and with nonprofits and the government, and there’s a kind of a Midwestern friendliness to it. But in a city of this size, there’s even more of that, you feel like everybody knows everybody.

Q: My final question is, what advice do you have for women in business?

A: Sheryl Sandberg is a friend, and I did think that her fundamental point about women leaning in is an important one in that, again, there’s a lot of research that shows that women are slower to raise their hand to say, ‘I’d like to be considered for that job,’ or ‘I think I’d like to be considered for promotion.’ So, having the confidence to bet on yourself and your potential, down to my ‘Why did I think I could turn around a company, that was a publically traded company, at that age?’ I think that’s really important. But at the same time, none of us do it alone. With the leaning, leaning on other people—back to my point about building a network of people that will help you, and in turn, helping them—I have found to be a really important thing. Back to the theme that we’ve been talking about, which is this idea of intellectual agility, of innovation, I’m a big believer in being a lifelong learner.

When I think back a couple of generations ago, almost everybody had three distinct chapters. You went to school, you worked, and you retired. That was life. And everything about that has changed. First of all, everybody I know expects to work their entire life; they may work the same all their life. I’ve changed from having an all-consuming CEO of a public company job to a portfolio of companies I work with, but I can’t imagine a time where I wouldn’t want to be working

Secondly, I think the things that people use to defer to retirement, like travel, learning another language, taking up a new activity, or even spending time with family—people do not want to wait. They want to have that balance sooner in their lives. And lastly, the idea that you stop learning because you graduated from high school or college or got your master’s, or whatever formal education you complete, at the very least, that’s not optimal. I would argue it’s even a mistake, you want to be a lifelong learner.

My criteria for what businesses I work with, start with if I would want to have a long dinner with these people, then, do I find the business genuinely interesting and do I believe I can help them, but the last is asking, ‘Will I learned something new?’ And that’s why being on the RDO board is valuable to me, as well as I believe I’m valuable to them. …That idea of just constantly challenging yourself, for business, but also it’s sort of what makes life fun—learning new things, whether it’s because you travel or read or you’re meeting interesting people. That’s why TEDx is so great, it exposes you.

You can watch Christie’s and all of the other TEDxFargo speakers’ TED Talks! Keep an eye out on TEDxFargo’s social media and website to see when this year’s TED Talks are uploaded.
Facebook: /TEDxFargoND
Instagram: /tedxfargo
Twitter: /TEDxFargo

Written by Geneva Nodland

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