Break Into Copywriting: Create Your First Spec Ad

Nicki Krawczyk, Copy Coach & Founder of Filthy Rich Writer

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13 Lessons (49m)
    • 1. Trailer

    • 2. What is Copywriting?

    • 3. The Basic Elements of an Ad

    • 4. The Copy Doc

    • 5. The Creative Brief

    • 6. How to Write a Brief

    • 7. Working With a Designer

    • 8. Finding a Designer

    • 9. The Art of Concepting

    • 10. Turning Concept into Copy

    • 11. Editing and Revising

    • 12. Describing Your Solution

    • 13. Your Next Steps


Project Description

Concept, Write & Collaborate to Create Your First Spec Ad

Learn the Basic Elements of an Ad

  1. Analyse an Ad, Email or Direct Mail Piece

    Okay, let's put this lesson into action!

    Your exercise is to find a piece of copy and analyse it according to all of the things you've just learned. Here's how:

    1. Randomly pick some piece of copy. Choose an email from your inbox, open up a magazine or the newspaper, or grab a direct mail piece from your mail.
    2. Diagram it. Identify the benefit and any supporting points. Then, identify the headline, subhead, body copy and CTA (all that apply).
    3. What are the traits of the brand voice? Can you tell from their copy?
    4. Who is their target audience? Is that clear from this piece?

    This might seem like kind of an odd exercise, but one of the best ways to learn is by examining the work of other copywriters!

  2. Find a Good Ad—and a Bad One

    Now that you've done a full analysis of an ad, you've got a better handle on the makeup of ads.

    From analysis, we're going to move on to, well, judgement. You're getting trained, so you have a trained eye, right?

    First, find a few ads (or emails, banner ads, brochures, direct mails, etc.). Do a quick analysis of each per the previous exercise.

    Then, choose one that you think is particularly good. What makes it good? Why do you think it would be effective?

    Then, choose one that you think is...not so good. I'll say it: bad. (There's a lot of bad copy out there, once you start paying attention.) What makes it bad? How does it break some of the copywriting rules we've discussed? Why do you think it wouldn't appeal to its target audience?

    It's just as important to understand and identify good copywriting as it is to understand and identify what makes some copy bad. Part of what will make you a professiona is your ability to discern between top quality work and not-so-top quality work. :)

  3. Rewrite an Ad into a Copy Doc

    Now, it's time to practice creating a copy doc.

    Before you create your own for your spec ad (coming up!) you'll practice creating one for an ad that already exists.

    You've amassed quite a few copy examples through the last couple of exercises. Look through them now and pick the one with the most copy.

    Now, open up a Word doc (or any other word processing doc) and retype the copy of the ad—but organize it into copy doc format.

    Denote the headline, subhead, body copy, CTA, and another other kinds of copy that are applicable (thinks like copy on buttons, bulleted copy, copy in separate boxes, etc.)

    Now, set the ad aside and look at your copy doc. Try to view it objectively—if you hadn't seen the ad, would it be clear what the different parts of copy are? If not, go back and revise your ad.

    You want to be sure to get comfortable working with copy docs—you'll be creating one in just a little while!

Write Your Creative Brief

  1. Identify Your "Client"

    It's time to start planning your spec ad—that is, it's time to start pre-planning your spec ad by putting together a creative brief.

    As you go through the process of writing your brief, try not to get too ahead of yourself with ideas for the execution. (Be sure to jot down anything you think of, but don't spend time concepting/brainstorming before your brief is done.) You don't want to be in the position of trying to retro-fit a creative brief to fit an idea—it just won't work.

    That said, it's time for step one of your spec creative brief: Choosing your "client."

    As I mentioned in the video, I would strongly recommend that you choose a real company or organization. It will make the process easier and help to keep you and your design partner on the same page.

    Here are a few other considerations as you sift through possible contenders for your first "client":

    • Choose a for-profit company instead of a non-profit organization; conveying a "benefit to consumer" is incredibly difficult with non-profits
    • Choose a company you're familiar with
    • Choose a company that's easy to research—you want to be sure you can find TV ads, print ads, web pages and as many other examples of their real copy as possible

    This step doesn't take exhaustive research, but choose your company carefully—and then stick with it! If you change your mind later, you'll have to go back an rewrite your entire creative brief. Writing the brief for your spec piece is a really easy place to self-sabotage: Pick a company and move on to the next step!

  2. Create/Identify Your "Product"

    You've chosen your company, so now it's time to decide what you're going to sell for them.

    In this exercise, I'll give you a bit more leeway than on the last one: you can either choose a product that already exists, or you can make one up.

    (*Note: I'll use "product" as shorthand from here forward, but your ad could be for a product, service or anything else likewise sell-able.)

    The benefit of choosing a product that already exists is that you have all of the details and information about it at your disposal.

    The downside of choosing a product that already exists is that it's easier to get caught up in and distracted by copy that already exists for it.

    On the other hand, the benefit of making up your own product is that your creativity is free to run wild and you can create exactly the kind of product you'd love to advertise, instead of being limited by what the company currently sells.

    The downside of making up your own product is that you don't have anything tangible to work with: no images, no details, no nothin'. Since it's imaginary, you have to come up with all of this on your own—and it may be hard for you and your designer to get on the same page since the only place your product exists is in your head.

    Here are a few considerations for choosing a real product:

    • Is this something you can put a new spin on with your spec ad? If the advertising for it is already really, really good, it's going to be hard to top it.
    • Is this something you'd be comfortable showing to a potential employer? Alcohol, lingerie and other kind of risque ads may intrigue some people and turn others off completely.

    And here are a few considerations for creating your own product:

    • How easy will this be to show? If it doesn't exist, yoru designer will probably have to create an image of it. A new kind flavor of potato chip might be easy, whereas a pizza-making robot is going to be just a biiiiiit trickier...
    • Is this a product that your company's target audience would really buy? (If not, how can you possibly write an ad that will sell it to them? Answer: You can't.)
    • Is this a product that might require writing outside of the company's brand voice? If so, I'd strongly suggest ditching it—one of the things you're trying to prove with your spec ad is that you understand brand voice and can write within an already established one. You can stretch the brand voice a bit, but you don't want to write off-brand. If you're trying to write an ad with a new product that requires a rebranding for a company, you're probably biting off more than you can chew (probably in general, but at least for your first spec ad.)
    • Is this a product you'd be comfortable showing potential employers? See the second bullet in the last list—there's no point in creating an ad if it's going to alienate people you want to work for.

    After choosing a company, choosing/creating a product is the hardest part. But my advice from the last exercise is true here, too: Think carefully, make your choice and then move on! Most of your energy should be expended in creating your spec ad, not in planning for it.

  3. Fill Out Your Creative Brief

    Now, it's time to step out of your copywriter shoes and into your product marketer shoes.

    As you fill in your creative brief, you want to imagine yourself as a representative of the company—and it's your job to sell this product.

    Filling out the brief is about facts. Later, when you put your copywriter shoes back on, you'll use these facts to help concept your piece.

    As you fill out your brief, be as detailed as possible. You'll be referring to this document again and again as you concept with your designer, execute your copy and revise your ad, so it needs to be as thorough and question-proof as possible.

    Ready? Download the creative brief template from the Resources section and let's dig in!

    1. To whom are we communicating? What do we know about them? Who is your target audience? Describe them in a much detail as possible. Are they men, women, or both? What are their ages? What are their habits as pertain to your product/company? (Are they already familiar with them? Do they use them? If so, how often? If not, why not?) How does this group behave? Get detailed!

    2. What is the benefit for this target audience?How does your product help this audience? What's in it for them/what do they get out of it? You should be able to identify one main benefit. And remember: focus on the benefit, not on features.

    3. What is the one main thing we want the target audience to do?
    What's the next step you want them to take after reading your ad? Visit a website? Go to a store? Call a phone number?

    4. Are there any secondary actions we would like them to take?This might not pertain to your spec ad, but sometimes there are secondary actions clients might want a target audience to take if they don't take the first one. For example, if the customer doesn't visit the store, they'd like the to visit the website. Again, this may not pertain for your spec ad; "no" is a perfectly fine answer to this question.

    5. What are the business objectives this project was designed to meet? What are the measurements?
    If you're trying to sell a product with your ad, the business objective is probably to increase sales. If you're trying to get people to sign up for a newsletter, the business objective is to increase subscriptions. Basically, what's the overall goal of this project? What would make it successful?

    Don't worry too much about measurement in this case, but the success of the ad might be measured by things like visits to the store, visits to the website, requests for information, etc.

    6. What tone should this project have?
    Choose from the list and/or add your own. Remember, the brand voice should always stay the same, but the tone of it may change a bit.

    7. What are your deliverables?
    For this project, it's a magazine ad.

    7a. What sizes do you need?We're going with just 81/2" x 11" to keep it simple.

    7b. How many iterations doe you want to test?
    You're not testing, so you only need one version.

    8. Are there any mandatory elements/functional requirements/functional considerations?You'll need the company logo and the name of the product, but is there anything else this ad needs to have? A website? A store location? A coupon?

    9. Have we done something similar before?
    Has your company run an ad like this before? You should include it with your brief to reference it, if so, so you can improve on it and avoid accidentally duplicating any concepts.

    10. Have our competitors done anything similar?It's always good to be aware of what competitors are doing, even for a spec ad. If you've found anything similar to your project from any of your company's competitors, include that with your brief so that you can reference it.

    When you're done, be sure to post your brief in the student projects area to share with your fellow students.

    And then...take a break! Filling out a brief is not easy, so feel free to give yourself a little breather before you move on to the next unit. Great job!

Find a Design Partner

  1. Reach Out on LinkedIn

    The first—not to mention easiest—place to look for graphic designers is on LinkedIn.

    Start by just searching "graphic designer" and your area and then use the filters to narrow your search.

    Look for a designer that has a similar level of experience to yours. (If you are brand new to copywriting, just look for someone who's relatively new to design.)

    Take at look at his/her experience and, when applicable, sample work. Some designers may have samples uploaded directly to LinkedIn and others may provide the link to their portfolio site. If they don't have any samples or links to any samples at all, exercise some caution: this may mean that they are very, very new to design. Use your gut.

    When you've found a handful of designers you're interested in working with, it's time to get in touch. If you are able to send email through LinkedIn, great. (This is a premium service—if you don't have it, don't worry.) If you are able to contact them through their portfolio site, also great. But if you can't get in touch with them either way, you can always click the "connect" button.

    The standard message from LinkedIn is along the lines of "I'd like to add you to my professional network." That won't cut it here (and not just because you're becoming a copywriter and words are your thing.)

    In this instance, you'll want to change the message to something like:

    Hi [NAME],

    My name is [YOUR NAME]. I'm working on building my copywriting portfolio and I'm looking for a designer to work on some spec pieces with me. Is this something you might be interested in? If so, you can reach me at [YOUR EMAIL] and we can talk more about it.

    Thanks![YOUR NAME]

    It can be as simple as that.

    You're bound to get some people who say "no" or who don't answer your message, but you're also bound to find someone who will want to work with you. Don't get discouraged by "no"s—just keep working toward that "yes."

  2. Post on Craigslist

    Craigslist is another great option for finding graphic designers to work with.

    Head over to the Craigslist for your city/metropolitan area and click on "creative" under the "gigs" section.

    Before you do anything else, it's worth looking through these listings—there might already be a graphic designer looking for a copywriter to work with.

    If not, you'll want to create a post of your own. You can keep it simple, but be specific. Your headline could be something like:

    Copywriter seeks graphic designer for spec ads

    and the body of your post could be along the lines of:

    I'm a copywriter and I'm looking to build my portfolio by creating some spec ads. If you're a graphic designer and looking to do the same, get in touch and we can figure out if we might work well together.

    Again, you can keep it simple.

    One note, though: Don't put your email address or phone number within the post; let people respond to you via the Craigslist email address. Invariably, some of the people that respond will be weirdos and you don't want to provide those weirdos with direct access to you.

    As always, be safe and exercise caution when you are in contact with strangers.

  3. Contact Local Design Schools

    Where's the best place to find designers who need to build their portfolios? Designers who haven't even started working yet. And where can you find designers like this? Design schools.

    The only reason I didn't mention design schools first is that they don't make it quite as easy to get in touch with designers as LinkedIn and Craigslist can.

    Research the design school(s) in your area and get them on the phone. (You're probably looking for the Careers Office.)

    You'll want to find out if they have a community board (physical or online) for posting your information. Let them know why you're looking for it, though; they may have a list of students who need copywriters to work with.

    If you're posting on a board, your message can be similar to the one for Craigslist. And if you're concerned about posting your email address publicly, you can always create a Gmail (or other free email service) account just for getting in touch with designers.

    Between LInkedIn, Craigslist and design schools, you should have some great prospects for your design partner!

Concept Your Ad

  1. Explore Ways to Convey Your Message

    Now, when it comes to brainstorming, you may find that you and your design partner want to just dig in and start riffing on ideas. If so, that's great.

    If you want a bit of a template for how to start thinking about concepts, though, that's what I've provided in this exercise.

    Either way, though, the very first place to start is by reviewing your creative brief together.

    Remember, your creative brief is your roadmap. Your concepts need to convey your product's benefit in terms that your target audience will appreciate and with copy that fits in the company's brand voice.

    Often, disagreement between copywriters and designers about ideas or directions can be resolved simply by re-reading the creative brief and evaluating these ideas or directions against it.

    Once you've reviewed your creative brief, it's time to start thinking of ideas for how you can convey the message. You'll want to think in terms of both copy and design—and don't be shy about suggestion design ideas just because you're the copywriter.

    Here are a few avenues to explore as you try to come up with concepts:

    • What's the wildest or most "out there" way you could convey this message?
    • What's the most obvious way you could convey this message?
    • What images does your product make you think of? What words might go with those images?
    • What behavior does your product make you think of? Or what behavior might your product cause? How would people use your product?
    • What's the funniest/cleverest way of conveying your message?
    • What's the most serious or heartwrenching way of conveying your message?
    • Is there a story you could tell around your product?
    • What are the results of using the product?

    This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of idea generating, but it should be enough to get you going.

    Obviously, you'll want to take notes on ideas as you come up with them and your designer will probably want to do some initial designs.

    Don't worry too much about fully fleshing out your concepts; your notes could be as simple as:

    Idea: Clown selling car
    Image: clown in car, driving"crazy deals!" "how many clowns can fit in here??"

    Now, obviously, that's a goofy example, but I just wanted to show you that your notes can be simple and short. The most important this is that you remember what they mean and you can flesh them out later if you want to.

  2. Think of How Your Audience Would Convey It

    The next step of your concepting is going to make you think about your product from the other side of the metaphorical counter.

    Take a little time to review your target audience because you're about to put yourself in their shoes. It's actually very easy to forget about your target audience as you start concepting—you get excited about ideas and directions and want to roll with the ones you love the most.

    But before you do, there's another step of concepting: thinking your product through from your target audience's point of view. So, that said, here are a few questions to concept with—and remember to try to answer in words that they would actually use:

    • How would your target audience describe your product?
    • How would your target audience describe the benefit of your product?
    • How does use of this product affect their lives?
    • How are their lives better after using this product? How are they worse before they use it?
    • What emotions does your target audience associate with your product?
    • How could this product change a customer's life? (Get creative—any product could change someone's life)

    You're not necessarily going to use all of this information, but these questions are great for really wrapping your head around how your target audience and your product relate to each other.

    Try to create a few concept based on the answers to these questions. Concepts and ads are that very customer focused are often the most effective.

  3. Evaluate Your Concepts

    By this point you should have lots of good ideas—and plenty of not-so-good ones, too. That's great! It's all part of the process.

    Now, since the goal of this course is to create one spec ad and not, say, 15, it's time to narrow down your concepts to the one you want to move forward with.

    First of all (and perhaps the easiest part), go ahead and lose any of the ones you and your designer agree aren't very good. Again, it's fine if you have a bunch of these. You'll often need to come up with bad ideas to then come up with good ideas.

    Next, pull out your creative brief again. (Aren't you glad you wrote it so carefully? Creative briefs get used a ton!) Start evaluating your concepts against your brief.

    • Which concepts don't really convey your product's benefit? Throw out the ones that don't get any information about the benefit across.
    • Which concepts seem like they are natural for the company? Which concepts seem "on brand"? If the concept is completely out of keeping with the way the company markets itself, lose it. You're not rebranding the company with this spec ad; you're selling a product.
    • Which concepts feel like they're most likely to connect with your target audience? You might have a genius ad with a concept about rap music, but if your target audience is retirees, it won't be effective. Lose the ones that aren't right for your target audience.

    These questions should have helped you to narrow down your concepts even further. But since you're going to be creating one spec ad, you'll need to narrow it down to one concept.

    That brings us to the final question: Of the concepts that you have left...which one are you most excited about? Which one can't you and your designer wait to get started writing and designing? Which one makes you think, "Oh man, that is good!"

    That's the concept you should move forward with.

    That's the beginning of your spec ad.

    Share your concept in the student projects section! Try to explain why you've chosen the concept you have and why you've decided not to move ahead with others. (This will also serve to help you later on...)

Create Your Ad!

  1. Write Your Copy Doc


    It's start copywriting!


    If finally putting some solid words to those concepts makes you a little nervous, don't worry: I'm going to walk you through it step by step.

    1. Set aside your concept for a moment. Really. You'll pick it up again in a bit, but first we've got some organizing to do.
    2. Organize all of the messages you need to convey. Put the most important message at the top of the page. This most important message is—you guessed it—the benefit! Next organize the rest of the messages in descending order of importance.
    3. Put your call to action at the bottom. It doesn't necessarily have to be the copy you'll use, but at least copy to stand for your CTA.
    4. Grab you concept again. How can you meld your concept with your benefit to create a headline? Now, you may actually already be ahead of the game here and the "idea copy" you came up with your concept may be very close to what you use for a headline. If so, great. If not, write your headline now!
    5. Does your messaging need a subheadline? Is there a piece of information that's crucial to understanding the full benefit but that doesn't fit into the headline? If so, go ahead and craft that subhead.
    6. Next, evaluate the rest of the information (if there's any left!) Does this need to be body copy? If so, write it now.
    7. Finish with your call to action.

    And you're done! ...Nope, joking. It's not quite that easy. ;)

    As you write your copy, remember to use words and phrases that are within your brand style, but also that would make sense to your target audience.

    Experiment with several different headlines—and, as you do, those will affect your subheads and your body copy.

    Be as concise as you can—and strive to convey only the most important, evocative information.

    Continually ask yourself if your product's benefit is being conveyed, and if it's being conveyed in the most clear, effective and resonant way possible.

    The copywriting process can be a very long one, so don't rush it. Give yourself time to sit with your ideas—and don't be afraid to step away from it for a while to do something else! Sometimes your best ideas can come while you're not even focused on your project.


    As with any other form of writing, a big part of copywriting is revising.

    Once you've gotten your messages and your wording in a good place, it's time to get ruthless with your editing. Remember: every word must serve a purpose and that purpose has to directly support the mission of the project.

    Here are some questions to ask yourself as you revise:

    • How can you cut your copy in half? Really. I'm betting that you think it's impossible, but challenge yourself to do it anyway. I'm not joking when I use the word "ruthless"—you have to kill words left and right.
    • Do you need every single message? Have you included some messages that aren't completely essential to getting someone to take the action you want them to take at that moment? If you want to get them in store to buy a vacuum cleaner, do they need to know about the service guarantee? What about the attachments? Do they need to know about the suction power? It could be yes or no to any of these. What does your target audience really need to know to take that step?
    • Have you been as clear as you can be? You've been close to this concept for at least a few days. If someone had no idea what you had in mind when you wrote it, would they still get it? It can be hard to be objective—feel free to run it by someone else. Just make sure it's someone who will tell you the truth!

    By this point, you should be in a pretty good place with your copy doc. But don't think the revising is over—you'll be surprised at how much may have to change once the copy goes into the design layout!

    So, with that, finish up your copy doc and send it over to your designer...and, of course, be sure to post it in the student projects section!

  2. Review the Ad in Layout

    You've sent your copy doc to your design partner and he/she has flowed the copy into the layout.

    In a perfect world, the copy and the design would work together perfectly and you'd be done. But in the real world, this is almost never the case.

    If at all possible, the very best way to revise copy in layout is to sit in front of a computer with your designer and make changes together.

    If it's not possible to get together, you should at least use screenshare software (programs like or other screenshare applications) so that you can both look at your designer's desktop.

    It's very important to work on it simultaneously because you'll get to bounce ideas off of each other, while immediately seeing how changes you make affect the layout.

    As you evaluate the layout, here are questions to ask yourself:

    • Does it look like there's a lot of copy? Copy always looks shorter in a Word doc than it does in layout. People are intimidated by too much copy and often end up skipping it completely. Be as objective and honest as possible: Is there too much?
    • Does the most important message jump out at you first? And then the next most important next? Make sure that the hierarchy of messages is conveyed in the design, as well.
    • Is the call to action clear and obvious for the reader to see? You definitely don't want a reader to miss it!
    • Overall, does the ocpy and the design make sense together? Do they work together? Listen to your gut: If something doesn't feel right, bring it up. This piece should represent your best work, so make sure it really is your best!

    Keep working together and keep tweaking the ad until it's in a place that you're both really proud of and happy with—and that meets all of the objectives in your creative brief. Then—and only then—are you done with your ad.

    And when you are done, show it off! Post it for your fellow students to see and comment on, and be sure to comment on theirs. (Please remember to be both constructive and kind with your comments. This copywriting stuff ain't easy.)

  3. Create Your "Problem" Description

    As I mentioned in the video, your spec ad's entire purpose for existence is to show people (potential clients and employers, recruiters, etc.) how well you can write copy.

    But no ad is created in a vacuum—as you now know, there's always a creative brief behind it and always a business need behind that.

    So your next step with your ad is to communicate exactly how your ad meets that business need. Yes, I know that this is a spec ac and, therefore, you "made up" the business need, but that's not the important part. The important part is that you're able to use your copy to solve a business' problem.

    Start by explaining exactly what the business' goal or problem actually was. Was the business objective to raise awareness about a new product? Was it to introduce a product to a new target audience? Was it to increase sales? What problem did the business have that necessitated creating your ad?

    Put together one or two sentences to convey this business problem.

    Next, you want to describe exactly how your ad solved that problem. This is your chance to talk about the reasoning behind your ad—why you chose that concept, why you wrote the copy you did, and why you think it it will resonate with the target audience.

    This should take you about two sentences, but make sure they're information packed. No one wants to read a ton of copy, so make sure that the copy they do ready really counts. Show them what an insightful and talented copywriter you are!

    Now, you're a copywriter, so be sure to put your best foot forward with these lines. For better or for worse, from here on out, people are going to be evaluating all of your writing.

    Polish those two-to-four lines until they absolutely shine and post them to your student project. Then, save them for when you put together a portfolio—and be sure to give a copy of it to your designer so that he/she can use it, too!

  4. Build Your Career!

    Well, what did you think? Did you enjoy creating your spec ad?

    As I've said in the videos, copywriting is a great career for someone who loves to work with words. It's creative, it's fulfilling and it pays well.

    This course has been both a great way to see if copywriting is something you'd enjoy doing, as well as a way to create your very first ad!

    If you're hooked on copywriting and now want to see where it can take you, here are your To Dos for building a career.

    • Get trained. Someone who's flown on a plane wouldn't walk into a hangar and say "I'm a pilot!"—just like any other career requires training, as does copywriting. It takes studying and practice. (Luckily, the studying and practice are fun.)
    • Create more spec ads. For the price of this one course, you now have the template to create as many spec ads as you want! As you learn to write for different types of media (banner ads, emails, direct mail, etc.), you'll want to create spec ads for those, too.
    • Put together online and print portfolios. To get work as a copywriter, you must, must have both online and print portfolios. They'll represent you and your talent before anyone even meets you in person!
    • Network to meet more people in the industry. The more people you can meet, the better. The creative industry in any city is surprisingly small—you want to start meeting people and getting to know them as soon as possible.
    • Pick up small business clients. Small businesses are great clients for new copywriters—they appreciate your help, they give you real pieces for your portfolio and they pay you!
    • Start finding work with agencies, in-house agencies or other clients. Decide if you want to write copy full-time or on the side, and whether you want to be on-staff, freelance or a contractor.

    There are a lot of steps to build a career (as there are for any career) but it's all a lot of fun and very worth it.

    So, with that...thanks for taking this course and, whatever you decide to do with copywriting, I wish you the very best of luck!

Additional Resources

  • Creative Brief Template

Student Projects

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Tim Plamondon
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Wayne Adams
1 comment
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Emma Vinchur
1 comment