News & Views

Let me start with a short anecdote.

The scene? A Japanese restaurant. Location? The Dubai International Financial Centre.

This was the tail end of 2014. Pre-Trump; in the early years of Xi Jinping’s reign. n/n was just over a year old. There I sat across from a senior marketer representing a global asset manager. His employer was investing in a Middle East expansion, he said, and they wanted to publish insightful commentary to strengthen their brand across the region.

While we scanned the menu, he explained the myriad ways capital markets across the Gulf were changing as they attempted to become more attractive to international investors.

I nodded and launched into consultant mode. There was the issue of regulation, not to mention the nuances that distinguish each Gulf market, from the UAE to Qatar to Kuwait. There was the tussle between Islamic finance and global finance. His firm could get ahead of each development with a distinct voice and potentially ‘own’ the story. White papers, infographics, videos, conferences, op-eds – the works.

He put up his hand. “Let’s first see how the market perceives these reforms,” he said.

On the face of it, this approach made sense. Best to let events evolve and then find one’s unique niche inside of the story. But it soon became apparent that what he really meant was something very different: his employer wanted to follow – rather than lead – the conversation.

In other words: We will let others stick their necks out and comment first. Then we’ll decide what to publish so we don’t offend anyone.

A Common Refrain

This story isn’t unique. At n/n, we frequently hear companies say in the same breath, (1) they want to publish cutting edge thought leadership, and (2) they also want to ensure that anything offensive or controversial is deleted before publication.

These contradictory motivations are especially strong in markets such as China and in the Gulf States, where falling afoul of regulators and policymakers – or uttering views deemed politically distasteful – can carry consequences.

To be sure, in the real-world companies have to weigh interests, just like individuals. They must balance their interest in publishing insightful commentary with a whole host of other considerations – compliance and legal constraints chief among them.

Think of it this way: when your friend asks if you prefer his new hairstyle to his old one (and you really don’t), common decency kicks in and to spare his feelings you are likely to pretend that you do, or at least find some other creative way to dance around the issue. Most of us readily accept that this particular truth simply isn’t worth the cost of delivering it.

Companies employ a similar calculus to self-censor all of the time, but on much more important matters. And therein lies the problem: All truths aren’t equal.

For an example, the Hong Kong office of a global bank may conclude that pointing out the flaws in China’s domestic credit rating system isn’t worth the risk of being seen as ‘anti-China.’

But the reality is the cost of ignoring – or at least failing to address – such an important matter is higher over the long term: investors and other stakeholders will wake up to the fact that such a bank is in the business of publishing hot air and bumf, not insightful commentary. In other words, the market may eventually turn on such companies for keeping their mouths shut.

An Excess of Caution

All of which means when it comes to thought leadership campaigns, companies – especially large, bureaucratic ones – are frequently their own worst enemies. Many not only preemptively self-censor – they also overdo it. What usually happens is this:

The marketing team has a bold idea – say, a compelling series on the real risks of investing in a cross-border infrastructure project linked to China’s Belt & Road Initiative. Work starts off with a bang: they compile lists of failed deals; they identify and attempt to interview frustrated investors.

But then, a rotating carousel of internal stakeholders gets its hands on the campaign.

First, the business heads cut out any material that could be ‘perceived as negative’ to protect the firm’s positive image with clients.

Second, the compliance team cuts out anything that could be ‘perceived as legally problematic’ to mitigate legal risks.

And then, finally, the marketing team looks at the content again – and, in an attempt to prove that they aren’t taking any chances – make another round of ‘just-to-play-it-safe’ cuts.

The result?

What was once a compelling, nuanced and insightful research paper is now a bland commentary that serves no specific audience or particular purpose. It’s as if the Hollywood machine picked up an edgy and utterly original screenplay only to dumb it down into a mediocre we’ve-seen-this-movie-a-dozen-times sequel.

What Can We Do?

With this in mind, how can you avoid ‘death by a thousand cuts’ with your 2019 content campaigns?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Before embarking on a campaign, devise a coherent content strategy and put it all down on paper. The key is to be as specific as possible: This is exactly what we want to say, and importantly, why we want to say it.
  2. Once the strategy is devised, obtain full buy-in from internal stakeholders, from business heads to compliance, before work begins: Make it clear that watered down content results are nothing but wasted effort and expenditure.
  3. Accept that some external audiences will almost certainly disagree with your views: Take that as a compliment and cough it up to the price of being a genuine thought leader. Strong opinions should elicit strong responses.
  4. And finally, if you are too constrained to say anything compelling and insightful, don’t say anything at all: It’s simply a waste of money to fake thought leadership.

At the end of the day, if you refuse to take a risk and say something meaningful, one of your competitors will. And they will walk away with not only the thought leadership crown, but eventually, the other things that go with it: More trust from clients, a stronger voice in the market, and inevitably, more market share.

The good news is there’s plenty to comment on. Trade tensions are escalating. US treasury yields are rising. China continues its ascent while navigating painful contradictions. A populist has emerged victorious in Brazil

Let’s get to work.

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Can your company be an agenda-setting ‘thought leader’ if it practices self-censorship?

Answering this question has taken on an increased sense of urgency in recent weeks, following news that Google is re-evaluating whether to launch a censored version of its search engine in China.

The blogosphere, as expected, is boiling over with criticism of Google and its secret China-friendly project, codenamed Dragonfly. Meanwhile, more than a thousand Google employees have signed a petition condemning what they believe is the tech giant’s abandonment of core principles.

Given Google’s history, the outrage is understandable. Only eight years have passed since Google co-founder Sergey Brin led the vaunted search engine’s much publicised exit from China, citing his extended family’s first-hand experience of living in the Soviet Union. And then there’s Google’s infamous motto “Don’t be evil,” – a clever and memorable way to articulate the company’s belief that technology should always be a force for good.

Sure, you say, but this is Google’s problem – what does it have to do with my company’s content campaigns?

Thought Leadership Requires Consistency

Put simply, Google’s dilemma is the same dilemma that every organisation planning a thought leadership strategy faces – and that is: How do you balance your organisation’s thought leadership ambitions and positioning, with the rules and expectations of tightly controlled markets (not to mention a whole host of additional interest groups such as shareholders and compliance officers)?

Here at n/n we ruminate on this problem daily.  We spend our days devising thought leadership campaigns for some of the world’s largest companies – campaigns that cut across multiple jurisdictions such as New York, Dubai and Shanghai. Our job is to help our clients do the hard work of parsing strong and true ideas from stale and false ones, and to remain consistent in their messaging in all of the markets they operate in.

And so, our view is an emphatic NO – thought leaders don’t self-censor. In fact, just the opposite: thought leaders drive conversations forward by uttering pesky and uncomfortable truths – and they don’t censor their views for certain markets.

On that basis, Sergey Brin’s decision to abandon search efforts in China in 2010, and his statements about his family’s experience in the Soviet Union, were in many ways the ultimate demonstrations of thought leadership.

Here’s the proof: the outcome of Google’s brave move. Even though they gave up search in one of the world’s largest internet markets, they are still – eight years later – the undisputed global leader of search technology. It’s such moves that arguably helped knight Google as the head of the tech pack.

Of course, many of the world’s leading companies have chosen to remain in China and adjust to China’s rules, arguing that (1) it’s wise to play the long game and (2) the benefits outweigh the costs and some exposure to China’s massive market is better than none.  These companies certainly have a point. And such declarations – if made consistently, without apology, and backed by data – also qualify as thought leadership.

The point is this: Thought leadership requires companies to abandon the premise that they can hold a certain view but soften its expression so no party is ruffled or offended.  That means if Google has changed its stance on China since 2010, it needs to come out of the dark and clearly say so – and own any fallout that follows. Only then can it regain lost ground and possibly retain its crown as one of tech’s most trusted thought leaders.

Being a thought leader does not mean courting controversy for the sake of it. But it does mean articulating clear views on major issues – and, importantly, either holding your ground or openly admitting to a change of heart when external forces pressure you to change your mind.

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Those of us in the content marketing industry like to claim that “Today, clients, investors and consumers expect major companies to act like publishers.”

Heard that one before? Given that you’re currently reading an article by n/n, I’m certain you have.

You’d be forgiven if, upon hearing such a declaration, you concluded that it’s simply something content marketers say to justify their work – akin to a donut hawker recommending the regular consumption of donuts.

But alas, I’m afraid that a few recent campaigns demonstrate it’s not just another corporate slogan. For evidence of this, look no further than the Mercedes Benz mini-film, ‘Tough Conversations.’

For those in need of a brief summary, this corporate campaign follows punk rock icon Henry Rollins across Australia as he interviews everyone from famous surfers to local tattoo artists, focusing on the issue of ‘toughness’ – what the concept implies, and how its definition differs for each individual.

Of course, Mr Rollins is driving an X-Class Mercedes pick-up truck throughout – and the video is full of shots that linger on the iconic Mercedes logo gracing the steering wheel, with Mr Rollins’ heavily tattooed arms framing the screen. The message is simple: Mr Rollins is ‘tough,’ and in its own unique way the Mercedes pick-up truck is too.

The camera also lingers overhead and behind the well-built machine as it speeds gracefully down open roads across Australia’s dusty and majestic outback.

Neither Mercedes, nor Mr Rollins for that matter, need further introduction. But it’s safe to say this campaign crosses the proverbial Rubicon. Why? Well, it’s a stark example of a new era in which major companies are making media that resonates well beyond very specific interest groups.

Until a few years ago it’d be slightly unimaginable that someone with the cultural cache of Henry Rollins – punk rocker, author, spoken word artist, and talk show host – would ever align himself with a corporate campaign of this nature.

By the same token, until a few years ago it’d be slightly unimaginable that a corporation such as Mercedes – which sells expensive cars to the global upper class – would ever align itself with someone like Mr Rollins.

And lastly, until a few years ago it’d be safe to conclude that buyers of Mercedes’ cars would be unlikely to “get” or appreciate the campaign. In fact, they might’ve been turned off by the brand’s association with Mr Rollins.

And that just proves the point, doesn’t it? For better or worse, we’re now in a world in which everything is jumbled. There are no clear corporate or cultural demarcation points. That great media democratiser – the Internet – has erased those boundaries, and it looks like they will never return.

Companies are commenting on culture. Cultural heroes (heroes for some of us, at least) are partnering with companies. Corporations are making short films that newsrooms used to produce. And some newsrooms, though they are often loathe to admit it, are producing corporate media under a different name (usually called ‘sponsored content’).

Put another way: Mr Rollins, like many adults, is not above providing his cultural commentary in exchange for a healthy paycheque and high-profile publicity. And Mercedes desperately wants to be ‘cool’ and ‘tough’ so it can sell more X-Class trucks. In this way, they are perfect bedfellows. We can scream heresy if we want. Or we can just dedicate ourselves to producing quality media, regardless of how it is financed.

Mercedes recognised this much when it dumped a whole lot of money into the ‘Tough Conversations’ campaign. I’d wager that many more companies, sensing their new role as publishers, will follow suit with similar productions.

Up next – Johnny Rotten and BMW?

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Those of us in media businesses are surrounded by freelancers. In fact, many of us at one time or another have chosen to be freelancers ourselves, until other opportunities arose (or the need for job security got acute).

Whereas freelancing was once seen as a risky decision, today it is a major feature of the ‘gig’ economy. Many new firms aim to link freelancers with clients: Upwork and Fiverr are just two that come to mind.

In the gig economy, the view of freelance life has changed: it’s now less about going it alone, and more a celebration of individuality, flexibility and the entrepreneurial spirit.

(Full disclosure, n/n – like most businesses — hires freelance contributors on a project basis from time to time. But the issue is knowing when and where to use them.)

One crucial area of media work not suitable for the ‘gig economy’ is the task of developing a coherent, detailed and cutting-edge content strategy for large companies. This takes more than one freelancer – or even a group of them.

It takes a unified team of media consultants who are able, and willing, to formulate an overarching publishing program that is aligned with the client’s messaging goals over a long time horizon.

At n/n, we find some marketers assume that whomever is writing the report or designing the infographic should also formulate the vision behind it. They ask a writer to guess what works, without a coherent strategy in place before writing begins.

This is the proverbial ‘throw something at the wall and hope it sticks’ approach. It’s a waste for everyone – a waste of both the writer’s and client’s time, when, after four weeks of drafting a 5,000-word white paper (or whatever), the client decides it’s not what they wanted.

This isn’t how professionals create good content. When you walk into any newsroom you will see there are journalists cranking out the stories and bureau chiefs and other news planners driving the broader agenda.

The same should apply to companies aiming to make an impact with their content. The business heads, working in collaboration with marketing and editorial consultants, should formulate the broader agenda before the writer or designer works his or her magic on the blank page.

The first step in devising a high-impact publishing program is to conduct an ideation workshop in which campaign stakeholders identify key campaign goals, analyze what’s already been published to see what has worked (and what hasn’t), and try to carve out a unique voice in their sphere of influence. Only then will a long-form campaign have a chance at succeeding in the marketplace of ideas.

Without a doubt, some of the greatest journalism is produced by freelancers, as they are mostly (and blissfully) free of the office politics and corporate constraints that inevitably shape the work of full-time employees.

But the fact remains: effective content strategies can’t be worked out on the fly by a team of disconnected individuals. Rather, such work requires the sustained effort and consistent analysis of a unified team, whether that team sits in-house or out.

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When searching for an effective thought leadership strategy, many of our clients ask us: “Where do we begin? How do we know what to publish?”

That’s a fair question. Publishing with impact is hard no matter who you are.

And then there are those clients – admittedly far fewer in number – who have the exact opposite problem: they simply publish too much. That’s to say, they saturate the market with commentary on every little development, trusting that volume alone will win the battle for more influence.

What these clients forget is that discernment and balance are also vital factors in any sound publishing strategy. We all know that friend who talks too much, much to the annoyance of his fellow dinner guests. After a while you begin to nod mindlessly at the sound of his voice – or tune him out completely.

Another parallel is found in the world of luxury travel. Five-star service is not only knocking on your door at evenly spaced intervals to inquire if you need your shoes polished or desire another complimentary fruit basket. Five-star service is also about knowing when to leave you alone.

These same principles apply to the world of thought leadership publishing. If you don’t publish at all, well – you can’t become a thought leader. If you publish too much, clients and consumers will tune you out.

So, at risk of talking too much and ignoring my own advice, here’s a few tips to help you find that elusive balance.

1. Clean your internal publishing pipes
Clients who publish too much often suffer from the same problem: they lack a formal publishing process and everyone internally – from VPs to MDs – wants a piece of the action. They simply turn on the tap and hope what flows out is good enough. This results in too much content from too many voices – much of it mediocre at best.

Solution: Identify who internally owns which pieces of your company’s editorial output, and give them the authority to set the tone. Have the confidence to say no to those who shouldn’t be publishing – and also resist editing everything you publish via committee. The more editors involved, the more you water down your output.

2. Allocate clearly-defined content budgets
Knowing how much you have to spend on thought leadership (as opposed to other types of marketing) encourages you to make strategic decisions and take a structured approach. It also helps you figure out what’s possible with the budget you have, forcing hard decisions about expenditures and desired ROI.

Solution: Mark the budget at the beginning of each year (or the beginning of each quarter) to establish a clear view of the potential size – or limits – of your publishing programme. And then work backward to define and shape your editorial calendar.

3. Be honest about what you’re qualified to talk about
Let’s be honest – no one is an authority on everything. Take Amazon for example. The e-commerce giant can easily talk about literary trends, because it has the sales data to back up its observations. But it’s better qualified to talk about e-commerce, or internet book retailing in general. More traditional publishers are better positioned to talk about literary trends.

Solution: Be honest about where you stand in the market and pick your sweet spot. Be confident enough to let others – even quasi competitors – to lead a conversation that you aren’t uniquely qualified to speak about.

4. Know what else is out there
Far too many aspiring thought leaders don’t know their place in the public conversation simply because they aren’t aware of what has already been said and what needs saying.

Solution: Read up on the best out there – whether that’s on Bloomberg, Reuters, or in the Financial Times – and do so frequently. That will give you a better view on the value of what you’re saying, and how it is likely to be received in the marketplace of ideas.

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By now it’s almost a cliché to talk about how ‘disruptive’ technologies are redefining global commerce.

There’s FinTech, RegTech, WealthTech, LegalTech, MedTech – and yes, so help us, take a deep breath, even MarTech (marketing technology, for those few still not in the know). Are you tired yet? Perhaps pining for a return to a simpler time? Not going to happen. The tech genie is out of the proverbial bottle, and it will impact us all.

MarTech platforms are designed to enhance efficiency and drive better ROI across the marketing discipline. Tried and tested solutions include MailChimp (email campaigns), HubSpot (inbound marketing) and Marketo (marketing automation). According to digital marketing experts CMSWire, MarTech platforms fall into one of the following categories:

  • Advertising and promotion
  • Content and experience
  • Social and relationships
  • Commerce and sales
  • Data
  • Management

And, take another breath, there are more than 5,000 on the market. That’s right: 5,000! Where to begin? How to choose? Your guess is as good as ours.

But here’s something to keep in mind, gleaned from experience with our roster of Fortune 500 clients over the past few years: You can buy the best MarTech in the world, but that investment will be wasted without the right content.

MarTech solutions generally aggregate, analyse or distribute rather than create. Quality content – or, insightful information, if you prefer – is the oil that flows through the MarTech pipes. What good is fancy piping if you don’t have high quality Texas Tea to pump?

It’s also important to remember that a lack of technology is typically not the main cause for the failure of content campaigns or publishing strategies. In our experience the following factors are more common — and difficult for MarTech alone to address.

  1. Content takes considerable thought and time to produce. You need to be left alone to get the job done.

This runs counter to the culture of many big organisations, where employees tasked with content production often juggle multiple and at times competing obligations, or are expected to be in meetings or on teleconferences all day long.

  1. Quality publishing requires an at least partially objective and journalistic mentality.

Marketing departments are often called upon to ensure content campaigns explicitly support commercial goals, or focus exclusively on the organisation’s achievements, when expert insight and credible, relevant information are far more effective generators of client loyalty and audience engagement.

  1. Immediate results are not guaranteed. Payoff is usually gradual following a series of quality campaigns.

This also runs counter to corporate culture, where quarterly earnings targets often drive the action, and where executives must constantly justify their budget allocations.

These are important realities to consider as you decide to allocate budgets to either MarTech or editorial campaigns. In other words, MarTech might reshape the marketing practice — but it won’t save it.

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HONG KONG/NEW YORK, Feb 8, 2017 — New Narrative, Asia’s leading custom media agency, today announced the expansion of its operations to North America with the opening of an office in New York City that will be led by Glenn Mott, a former executive editor and publishing director at Hearst.

New Narrative creates custom research and thought leadership, multi-platform editorial content and publishing campaigns for top-tier corporations and media organizations worldwide.

Mott, an award-winning editor, publisher and journalist, joins New Narrative as the founding partner of its North American operation. Mott will draw on his extensive experience and industry network to lead the firm’s North American expansion, as well as the development of new production and distribution solutions that will enhance the reach and impact of client content and media projects.

In his previous role as editor and publishing director for the Hearst newspaper syndicate, Mott oversaw an array of syndication partnerships with global media organizations, including The Guardian, The Toronto Star, Bulls Press, Univision, Tribune Content Agency and Gannett. As publishing director he was responsible for printed book, digital and mobile publishing across all Hearst syndicated features. Mott built a diverse catalogue of titles in all formats covering a broad range of categories, including finance, healthcare, memoirs, travel, food and wine, and graphic art.

In these roles Mott also created syndication and editorial marketing strategies for a broad range of clients, including, The Atlantic, the Gallup Organization, Democracy Now!, Gatehouse Media and Lonely Planet.

Mott is a graduate of the Hearst Management Institute, conducted by the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, and Medill School of Journalism. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing (2008-09) and a Kathryn Davis Fellow for Peace at Middlebury College (2013).

“Since its founding by experienced financial journalists in 2013, New Narrative has shown consistent growth in a wide range of sectors including professional and financial services, media, healthcare and technology,” said Joseph Chaney, Hong Kong-based co-founder of New Narrative. “In North America, we will expand into new fields such as education and build the highest-quality customized media services for clients in need of tailor-made editorial content, syndication, and press and publication infrastructure.”

“Given his credentials as an executive editor and publisher with deep expertise in multi-platform product creation and development, syndication and media partnerships, Glenn Mott is ideally positioned to lead the company’s North American journey.”
About New Narrative

New Narrative Ltd. (n/n) is a content consultancy and custom media agency founded in Hong Kong in 2013. The firm conceptualizes and creates tailor-made content campaigns that drive value for a range of global companies, media organizations and research institutes.

New Narrative partners collectively have more than 50 years’ experience as senior editors and executives in leading media organizations, reporting on market-leading events and producing insightful commentary and analysis for an audience of senior decision-makers.
Press enquiries:

In the U.S.:

Glenn Mott, Partner
glenn.mott@new-narrative.com
+1 646 330 3282
In Hong Kong:

Joseph Chaney, Partner
joseph.chaney@new-narrative.com
+852 9411 7441

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How can you tell content marketing works? When even the marketing companies are using it. The ‘State of Inbound 2016’ report from sales software specialist HubSpot is a good example, and an insightful piece of research in its own right.

HubSpot being an inbound sales platform, the neutrality of its conclusions might be called into question, but the firm’s certainly done some legwork, polling 4,500 marketers globally and 800 in Asia Pacific alone — most non-HubSpot customers in small and mid-sized enterprises. Not surprisingly, the report shows inbound marketing (that is, getting customers to come to you via a website, content or referrals) is far more effective in terms of return on investment than the ‘outbound’ variety (shouting at customers to come to you with display, banner or other types of ads). Here are some of the other key findings from our perspective:

Content is a must — and a struggle

Creating content was the second-biggest inbound marketing priority for Asia-Pacific companies, just under enhancing their website search engine optimisation. But it doesn’t necessarily come easy; nearly a third (31%) saw targeting content for an international audience as a major challenge.

Content can also be exhausting — 66% of marketers said they develop their own content in-house, and almost a quarter (23%) spend four hours or more crafting one short blog post. It’s great that so much thought and care is going into the process, but (depending on subject matter) it really shouldn’t take that long — and can’t, if small marketing teams hope to generate content at a rate (and on a level of quality) to fuel ambitious campaigns and long-term engagement. Simple lack of capacity may result in more enlisting the help of (ahem) outside agencies to support their content needs, which a mere 21% those polled did currently.

Distribution: The classics reign (for now)

While HubSpot concentrated on blogs in this study, next year’s will almost certainly have to encompass video — YouTube and Facebook video were the most popular emerging content distribution channels, with 51% and 40% of those polled respectively planning to add them to their marketing programs in the next 12 months. Instagram was a distant third (28%) while few placed much emphasis on Snapchat (11%) or Vine (5%). This indicates to us that marketers plan to focus their content efforts on a couple of key formats or platforms, and that’s a sound strategy — far better to master one or two distribution channels than to do a half-hearted job of populating all of them.

The study also shows most people continue to draw a line between social and business networking. Only LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are seen as ‘professional’ platforms; others, including Instagram, WeChat and Weibo, are still used almost exclusively for personal purposes. That doesn’t necessarily mean these channels should be disregarded by businesses, but does suggest that LinkedIn and Facebook are still the places where ‘serious’ content is most likely to connect with decision makers, and have the most impact, particularly in the business-to-business context. This might change as more organisations refine their visual content offerings, or turn their attention to the mainland Chinese market and its homegrown networking platforms.

All in all, it’s encouraging that content and not ad spending is viewing as the new marketing currency, and we look forward to seeing how the results change next year.

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We’re very happy to announce today the formal appointment of n/n’s new Hong Kong-based director of business development, Elizabeth Kwong.

A veteran of top-tier media brands such as Asiamoney, Time and the Economist Group, Elizabeth boasts a formidable combination of sales skills and serious publishing and project management chops, and has helped shape content strategies for a range of clients in industries from technology to retail. We expect Elizabeth to play a major role in our future growth (and perhaps keep the rest of us in line in the process).

For more details on Elizabeth and the rest of the expanding team, please see our People page.

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