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The Pitch Was A Smash, ’98

Shortly after I joined Phelps, we had the opportunity to pitch a piece of Warner Bros. business.

Our team was ushered into a large conference room where eight WB executives sat around a spectacular twenty-four- foot long conference table covered from end-to-end in 1/2 inch thick glistening glass.

We were on top of our game that day, offering up a slew of creative campaigns complete with promotional tie-ins and fun guerrilla tactics that got laughs and applause in all the right places.

By the end of the hour-and-a-half long meeting, we had them in the palm of our hands.

Feeling a little full of myself, I stood up to deliver an emotional wrap-up.

That’s when the adrenaline kicked in. I raised my voice and waved my arms. And as I began to deliver my last line inspired by Bogart in Casablanca, “This is the beginning of…” I slammed my fist into the table for extra emphasis.


The glass broke down the middle and kept cracking and splitting for about twelve feet.

Everyone sat in stunned silence as I finished my line:

“…a beautiful relationship.”

The next day we won the account. And spent the next 6 months paying for the table.

I Remember David

DAVID FROM MAUREEN.1526095_10153692992335164_1354666552_nDavid O’Connell was more than a fellow associate at Phelps. He was also a good friend and, for ten years, one of my favorite art director partners.

The word “big” comes to mind. David had a big brain, big talent and a big heart.

He stored factoids in his memory bank the way I store New Balance sneakers in my closet.

David, what’s a black hole? “Well, you know, when a super nova burns out…” “David, how do they get lead into a pencil?” “Well, you know…” He knew everything.

I used to say, “When you have a David O’Connell, who needs Google?”

He was particularly helpful to me when we were working on NuSil, a highly technical account. I relied on David to explain to me what the hell our client did for a living.

“Well, you know, they make the goo that goes into aerospace and medical and blah blah…” David knew how to get through to me. He had me at goo.

When I decided to start writing this blog, David was my first and only choice to design the logo and masthead. He graciously took on the assignment –a decision I think he may have regretted, as I wasn’t the easiest client.

“David, does my chin look too short? David, can you make my head bigger?”

“Howie” he said, “Your head can’t get any bigger.” He always made me laugh.

My wife Carol loved David, too. She marveled at his artistic eye and felt validated when he expressed appreciation for our home. “What a kitchen” he said, “I can’t get over the size of your industrial stove. You must do a lot of cooking.“ “Well” I said, “Carol’s good with spaghetti and I make great scrambled eggs.” He would just shake his head as if to say, “Oy, what a waste.”

Carol loved to get creative suggestions from David. “You know” he said, “The house looks great in white, but you might consider painting the dining area an accent color.”

“Really? What color?” Carol asked, leaping at the suggestion. “Oh, maybe something in a subtle taupe.”

The next day, I raced over to Home Depot and picked out what I thought was the perfect color. I was so excited, I spent the whole day painting the entire area myself. When I was finished, I stood back admiring my Jewish handiwork, only to realize my subtle taupe was more like a murky dog shit.

When David saw it, he gently suggested I stick to being a copywriter.

About six weeks ago, David’s lovely sister Maureen brought him over to our house for a visit. By then, he had been battling his cancer for quite some time.

His face was a bit swollen and he walked with a cane. But he was still David, telling advertising war stories and laughing out loud at our shared experiences. We were so grateful to have those special moments with him.

David was an amazing person who nourished me and everyone else who came into contact with him. He spread knowledge and humor and art wherever he went, and we we are all the richer for it.

I miss David and I will never forget him.

Joe Rein, Producer Extraordinaire

That’s Joe Rein in a recent photo with the great Manny Pacquiao.

Joe was our VP of Broadcast Production at Cohen/Johnson.  It was a big job because we were producing over 75 TV spots a year.

He was an experienced, street smart, can-do kind of guy.  A former prizefighter whose tough battles in the ring helped prepare him for the wars on Madison Avenue.

But this is the story of one production where Joe almost went down for the count.

Cohen/Johnson had just made it into the finals of a new business pitch for Bally’s Health & Fitness Clubs.  It was a sizable TV broadcast account so we were the perfect agency for it.  But, of course, there were forty other agencies banging on their door.

Mark Johnson and I managed to get an hour-long meeting with their VP of Marketing and learned some inside information.  He wanted to appeal to a whole new target — boomers.  We seized upon this insight and decided to make it the focus of our advertising.

We would invest our own money and shoot a finished spot in order to win the account.  The key was to find a talented director who was hungry to put a great new spot on his reel and would be willing to shoot it for nothing.  Enter Joe Rein.

He found the perfect director in New York and, as luck would have it, we were heading there to shoot some beautiful food footage for Jack in the Box. 

All we needed now was the right guy to play the key role.  No problem, right?  Wrong!  Due to the uniqueness of our story, this guy had to be at least 60 years old and very fit.  There aren’t too many of those guys hanging around the streets of New York.  But we weren’t worried.  Joe Rein was on the case.

In the middle of one of the hottest Augusts on record, Joe started pounding the pavement, like a cheap detective, going from gym to gym looking for our guy.  He scoured Manhattan, and when he couldn’t find him there, he took the train up to The Bronx, and when that failed he hopped over to Brooklyn.  Time was running out and Joe was getting a little punchy (poor choice of words, perhaps?) but he wouldn’t give up.

One hot humid night after a long day of shooting food, Joe walked into a gym that had seen better days.  Due to the intense heat and humidity, he was wearing tight white tennis shorts, a strappy tee-shirt and white sneakers with no socks.  He sauntered up to the counter where a big, burly manager was sitting and said, “I wonder if you could help me.  I’m looking for a good-looking man about 60, well built with big muscles.”  “I’ll bet you are” the manager said.

Without realizing where the conversation was going, Joe continued.  “I want him to have large biceps…clear skin with no tattoos…and preferably no hair on his back.”  “Listen buddy…” the manager tried to cut Joe off, but to no avail.  “And he shouldn’t sweat too much.”

The manager exploded.   “Listen pal, this ain’t the YMCA and we’re not The Village People!”

Joe started backing out the door, but wasn’t finished.  “I’m staying at the Roosevelt Hotel, room 715!  I’ll pay cash!”   “Get the hell outta here, you pervert!”

Two days later, as a bunch of us were sitting around the hotel lobby, Joe walked in with a good-looking well-built older man by his side – the very embodiment of what we were looking for.  “Gentlemen” he said, “I’d like you to meet our guy!”  Joe Rein had come through.

This commercial also marked my official debut as a professional voice over announcer.  If my voice sounds particularly mellifluous, it’s  because I had a bad case of bronchitis.  (With pneumonia, who knows how far I could have gone.)

On the big day of the presentation, we screened the spot for the Bally’s people. They asked to see it again and again, and by the next day, we had won the account. 

And to think, it never would have happened without the fancy footwork of Joe Rein — prizefighter, producer and honorary member of The Village People.


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© 2010 Howard Cohen, All Rights Reserved

In The Moment, ’93

At some point in my career, I realized I needed to get better at living in the moment.  My mind was too consumed with thoughts of advertising.  I could be sitting across the dinner table from a good friend, or out in the park with my kids, and not even be conscious that they were there.  My mind would be focused on a business problem or a campaign I needed to write.   I was missing out on a lot of the moments that make life special.

So, I started doing yoga, meditating, and reading some self-help books that taught me:  “Yesterday is gone, tomorrow may never come, all we have is now.  Be in the moment.”  It was working and I was proud of myself. Until we took the family on a ski trip to Vail, Colorado.

On the very first day, Carol and I were sitting on the chairlift heading up the mountain. The sun was shining, the temperature was a perfect 50′ and there was 5 feet of powder on the ground.  But I wasn’t enjoying any of it.  My head was back in LA, thinking about some stupid new business pitch we were going to make.  I was gone!

When we reached the top of the mountain, something magical happened.  We guided our skis to the big trail map to get our bearings.  It was a profusion of blue and green and black lines on a field of white.  But my eyes went directly to a big black dot in the middle, which represented the spot where we were standing.

“YOU ARE HERE!”, it said.

It was like a message from the ski Gods.  Instantly, it snapped me back to the moment.  For the next ten days,  anytime my mind began to wander back to advertising, I would summon up the words, “You are here!” and focus on the joys all around me.   (Can’t you tell from the pic of me and Carol?)  I ski’d with my wife and played with my kids and came back to LA fully recharged and refreshed.

Two weeks later, we won the account.

Like my stories?  Please comment here or send questions to  And if you like it, spread it.

© 2010 Howard Cohen, All Rights Reserved

Advertising Love Story

In 1966, my second year in advertising, I was lucky enough to get a job at Gilbert Advertising, a hot creative boutique.

I have to pinch myself when I think of the talented people I was surrounded by. Gerry Andreozzi, a visual genius, was the agency creative director; Paul Margulies, best known for the “Plop plop, fizz fizz” campaign was the copy chief; and Nat Russo, a brilliant copywriter, was my creative supervisor.

Nat had a special talent for writing ads that not only moved products, but moved hearts.

One of them was for Shalimar perfume. Created with his Italian art director partner, Al Amato, it featured a hauntingly beautiful photograph of the Taj Mahal with the headline, “Before it was a perfume, it was a garden of love.”

Little did Nat know when he wrote those words that he was speaking to the heart of someone who would become very important in his life. As Nat tells the story…

“Years after I’d written the Shalimar ad and bounced around the business, I was working at Martin Landey, Arlow — the agency with one partner’s full name and other’s last name only. I was divorced and was more and more attracted to a producer, Barbara Gans. We started seeing each other, then escalated to living together. We were to get married maybe six months or so later, with both Marty Landey and Arnie Arlow attending the wedding officiated by a rabbi at the St. Regis Hotel.

But while we were still living together, Barb starting looking through my portfolio one day, which she’d never seen before. I think I was in another room when I heard a kind of yelp/gasp. Entering the room to see what was up, she said, “You did this ad?” She had the portfolio open to my Shalimar ad. “Yeah, what of it?” was all I could think to say.

She proceeded to tell me she had ripped out the ad from a magazine while she was going to the University of Pittsburgh and had it on her sorority room wall. We were both kind of stunned. Still am when I think about it. It made us feel fated for each other. And it’s turned out to be a rather good omen for our life together since.”

To all who believe in love, never underestimate the power of fate. Or a really good perfume ad.

blood sweat and tears

Snug As A Rug In A Bug, ’65

On Monday, March 15th, 1965, I began my advertising career at Doyle Dane Bernbach, the most creative agency on the planet.  At the ripe old age of 22, a memo introduced me as their youngest copy trainee.  I wasn’t just young chronologically.  I looked, acted and felt young.  A little boy with peach fuzz on his face working in the big, grownup world of “The man in the grey flannel suit”.

Howie in London, '66

Howie in London, ’66

I was a study in contradictions.  Cock-sure and clueless.  Gregarious and shy.  A dragon slayer without a sword.  The truth is, I really didn’t know how to write copy.  I was hired purely on the basis of spec ads, a sparkly personality, and being in the right place at the right time.

So, how did I get from there to here?  By soaking up the genius all around me.  I was surrounded by some of the greatest creatives of all time.  Bill Bernbach, Helmut Krone, Julian Koenig, Ron Rosenfeld, Len Sirowitz, Phyllis Robinson, Bob Levenson, Roy Grace, Bob Gage – to name a few.  If you’ve never heard of these legends, that’s a shame.  They didn’t just create great advertising, they defined it.

I also had the incredible good fortune to be assigned to the VW Bug campaign that set the standard for creativity.  To help me develop “an ear” for the brand, my supervisor handed me a big fat book of ad slicks containing page after page of inspiration.  I studied the brand voice (smart, self-deprecating); the style and cadence of the copy (every sentence was a paragraph); the little sentence connectors, (“after all”, “but then”, “of course”); the ironic headlines that complemented, but never duplicated, the photos; and the clever last lines that always left you with a warm feeling about the brand.  “Snug as a rug in a bug” was one of the first lines I ever came up with to stress the VW workmanship.  It never saw the light of day, but I still think it could have been cool.

Doyle Dane Bernbach was my advertising university.  For anyone reading this who wants to get into the business – or just get ahead in it – I strongly recommend that you pursue a job at a truly integrated creative agency where you can get a 360 degree education from mentors who are passionate about the work.  Abandon a bigger job if you have to.  Give up a higher salary or a fancy title.  Put in the time and learn the difference between good and great.  If you love being creative, this business can provide you with a lifetime of rich memories and fun stories.

It has for me.

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© 2013 Howard Cohen, All Rights Reserved

Retargeting: They really love me.

I had lunch the other day with a dear old friend who was complaining about the intrusiveness of re-targeted ads that follow him everywhere. He said it’s not just annoying, it’s creepy. I told him I feel just the opposite.

Whenever ads come up on my personal pages, I think of them as helpful suggestions from people who really care about me and want to make me happy.

jeanette babyhowieThis somewhat delusional belief in my loveability goes back to my childhood.

My adoring mother would say things like, “I had lunch with Mrs. Katz today and she said she has never seen a more adorable child than you.”

They love me, they really love me.

A few weeks ago, a pair of Donald Pliner shoes with trendy orange soles popped up. I bought them for only $200.

iTunes is crazy about me. If I buy one song, they tell me about twenty other similar songs they’re sure I will love.

I’m now spending $200 a month on music I don’t listen to.

And just today, an amazing $2,000 trail bike popped up on my facebook page. I already have a great bike, and I never ride on trails, but if they’re so sure it’ll make me happy, who am I to argue?

It’s nice to be loved.

Carpetman, ’73

Our agency, Cohen, Pasqualina, Timberman, was in its first year of business and we were going nowhere fast. All the accounts that we thought would come flocking to our door were not flocking.

Feeling desperate, I pored through the Redbook of advertisers looking for a prospect – a live one – anyone who was spending money. Page after page, category after category – nothing.

And then, I found it. An account spending $2 million and nobody knew about it. A diamond in the rough. I found Carpeteria!

I called them up and actually got through to Murray, their CEO. I told him about the Clios we had won for our Alka Seltzer campaign, “I Can’t Believe I Ate The Whole Thing” and “Try It, You’ll Like It”. I promised we could do the same thing for their wonderful carpets. To my delight, Murray invited us out to Long Island to make a presentation to him and his partner, Abe.

Pasqualina and I decided to create a TV campaign to showcase our creativity. We even hired a freelance creative team to work on it, too. As it turns out, they came up with the big idea. To create a superhero called “Carpetman” complete with a cape and a big “C” on his chest – the whole bit.

Building on their breakthrough idea, we wrote heroic scripts with Carpetman coming to the rescue of carpet deprived people. We even penned a thrilling theme song (think Mighty Mouse) to herald Carpetman’s arrival on the scene.

Pasqualina and I must have been drinking the same Kool-Aid, because we got really excited over this idiotic campaign. Feeling totally confident, we drove out to Long Island to present it to the owners.

Upon arrival, we were escorted by Myrna, the receptionist, to a carpet warehouse the size of two football fields with carpets piled on top of one other as far as the eye could see. And standing there in the middle of this miracle of plush-dom, were Abe and Murray, arms outstretched to welcome us.

“You’re Mr. “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” Murray said. “Genius, genius”, and Abe added, “I say that line all the time. You would, too, if you knew my wife’s cooking!” he laughed.

The four of us made our way to the corner of the cavernous warehouse. This was our big moment.

Bob did a great job of taking them through the first storyboard, and then I sprang into action.

Feeling adrenaline surge through my body, I leaped up onto a huge bolt of carpet so that I was actually looking down at Murray and Abe’s bald spots. I acted out every character in the stories — the poor people who were carpet deprived — and when Carpetman came to the rescue and it was time for our big musical anthem, I let it rip. I sang at the top of my lungs, every lyric a gem, every note in perfect pitch.

And just as I was about to reach the crescendo, I jumped down off the carpet, landed right in front of Murray and Abe and belted out the final note, “Carpetmaaaaaaan!”

And then I stopped and looked directly into their faces waiting for the applause that never came. There was just silence. Then Abe turned to Murray and said, “Murray, is this schlock?”

The ride back to Manhattan was long and uncarpeted.


Like my stories? Please comment here or send questions to And if you like it, spread it.

© 2013 Howard Cohen, All Rights Reserved

This Is Love In ’69

If Wells, Rich, Greene was a hotbed of creative talent, it was also a volcano of raging hormones. 

Everywhere you looked, there were beautiful people roaming the halls of our glamorous Billy Baldwin styled offices in the GM building overlooking Central Park.

You could hardly turn a corner at the agency without bumping into another sexual fantasy.  The sweaters were tight and the miniskirts were so skimpy, if a secretary bent down, you could see all the way to Cleveland.

We were living in a very publicized age of sexual freedom.  The Viet Nam war was in full swing and every young man had a number on his back.

If that number was called by the draft board, we could be plucked out of our careers and forced to fight, and possibly die, halfway around the world in an insane and senseless war.  So, an attitude of “live for now because who knows if we’ll be here tomorrow” was pervasive.

Recreational drugs and alcohol helped fuel the new found feelings of freedom.  Smoke a little grass, drink a little wine, feel a little creative, make a little love!  And so, at Wells, Rich, Greene, lots of young single people were getting into some healthy sexual experimentation.  And not to be denied, many of the married guys were letting their hair — and their wives — down, too.

Art directors and copywriters who came from humble beginnings in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and who had married their high school sweethearts, were suddenly immersed in the glamorous world of sexy models, out of town shoots and decadent film production parties into the wee hours of the morning.

As a result, there were bitter breakups.  For awhile, I worked with an art director named Kenny who grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.  Over the course of a year, I saw him change from a nice mensch-y guy into a self-impressed ladies man who started to believe his own bullshit.  He divorced his high school sweetheart and left her and his two little kids for a skinnyminny Ford model.  “I can’t believe it, Howie, she’s gorgeous and she loves me!”

Six months later, she left him for a fashion photographer with a big studio, a large bank account and really good drugs.  There were lots of guys like Kenny and they came from every side of the business.

As a friend said to me at the time, “Howie, everybody’s doing everybody.”  Account executives were dating producers, copywriters were romancing secretaries, art directors were falling for media people, and then it was — everybody change partners and start all over again.

One of my friends at the agency was a talented copywriter named Timothy.  He was a Brit — tall, dark and dapper — and he always dressed in sleek dark suits so he looked far more elegant than the rest of us who were growing our first beards and wearing clothes inspired by Sargent Pepper.  Timothy had a thick English accent which was a real turn on for the ladies and which he played up for all it was worth.  So, he always had plenty of women.

He also had a rule of never taking out any woman more than three times.  The first time was all about wild passionate sex and the thrill of discovery.  (In those days, everyone did it on the first date.)  The second time was about experimentation and expanding your sexual horizons.

And the third time was the “je regret” moment when Timothy would present the lady with one perfect red rose as part of a sad and romantic farewell.  Timothy was classy that way.  I can assure you that no Jews or Italians from Brooklyn were giving girls roses.

One day, Timothy and I were having lunch and after about the third martini, he began to let his hair down.  “You know I’ve been dating Linda” he said.  “Yes, everybody knows” I said.  “But did you know we’ve been seeing each other for three months?”  “Really?”  I said.  “Wow, what happened to the three date rule?”  “This is different.” he said.  “Howie, I think I’m falling in love with her.  Which is why I’m so upset.”  “What do you mean?” I asked.

He said, “I thought Linda was different from the others, you know?  I mean, she’s really smart, she’s great in bed, and she makes me laugh.”  “Laughter is good.” I said, “Sex is easy, but a good laugh is hard to find.  So what’s the problem?”

“Well, just when I was about to bare my soul to her, I found out she was screwing that guy Walter in the mail room!”  “Walter?” I said.  “The fat sweaty guy?”  “Exactly” he said. “So what does that say about Linda…and what does that say about our relationship?”  I was beginning to see his point.

“I don’t know what to do about it.” he said.  “I’m good at sex, but I’m not very good at this love thing.”  “Why don’t you have a long talk with her” I suggested.  “Tell her how you really feel.  Maybe she’s just screwing around because she thinks you’re not serious…like, your relationship won’t go anywhere, so she has to keep her options open.”

Timothy had a different approach.  “I’m going to ask out her best friend Carla and “f” the crap out of her.” It’ll make Linda jealous as hell.”

“Timothy” I said, “That sounds like a really bad idea.  I think you’re just going to drive her away.  Don’t be an idiot!”  But he was confident he had the right strategy.  Piss her off to win her over. It was clear to me that his relationship with Linda was about to be history.

Meanwhile, the promiscuity at Wells, Rich, Greene was becoming common knowledge and the word had reached the highest levels.  One day, a guy named Hank, who had a reputation for being an agency spy and a snitch with direct lines to Mary Wells, popped into my office.  Bob Pasqualina and I were sitting there working on a new TV spot when Hank closed the door and pulled up a seat.  We dropped what we were doing.

“Gentlemen” Hank said.  (Did he say gentlemen?  This must be really serious.) “I’m going from office to office.  It’s going to take me all day and maybe all day tomorrow, too.  But this is very serious.  I’ve been asked to relay this message to everyone in the agency.  It’s a personal message from Mary Wells herself, and I quote:

“Do not dip your quill in the company ink.”

It couldn’t have been more clear or more powerful.  Screw around with agency people and you’re gone!  Everyone got the message and, all of a sudden, everyone became more discreet.  I know the sexual activity didn’t stop, but it definitely went underground.  We no longer knew who was doing who, or where, or when, or how many times.

As for Timothy, he might have had the right strategy after all.  That year, he married Linda.


Like my stories?  Please comment here or send questions to  And if you like it, spread it.

© 2013 Howard Cohen, All Rights Reserved

I, Guinea Pig

Shortly after Carol and I got married in 1972, she quit her job as an advertising copywriter to pursue a career as a psychologist.

howie_color_sm_crpDuring the course of her studies, she had to practice certain skills, like learning how to administer psychological tests and evaluate the results.

To do this, she needed a willing subject, and since I was the guy lying in bed next to her, I became her favorite guinea pig.

One day, over the course of two hours, I subjected myself to an intensive two-part test beginning with General Knowledge (all the little factoids that are stored in your brain) followed by Visual Perception (the ability to define shapes, objects and put puzzles together.)

Being a good sport, I embraced the challenge and answered all of the questions with alacrity and good charm.

When the test was finished, my wife told me I would hear the results in about a week.

Well, a week went by, and then another. Now, I was starting to worry. Why was she avoiding me? What did that test say about me, anyway?

Finally, I confronted her and said, “Okay, I did your dumb test, the least you can do is tell me how I did.”

“You really want to know?” she asked. “Yes, I really want to know!” I said.

“Okay.” She took a deep breath. “Well, you did above average on the General Knowledge part. But you did very poorly on the Visual Perception part.”

“One out of two ain’t bad” I said. “So, what does it all mean?”

“What it means is…” she cleared her throat, “According to the test, you’re either schizophrenic or have brain damage.”

My lovely wife went on to earn her PHD in Psychology and have a successful practice in L.A., which she enjoys to this day.

As for me, I’m proud to be her loyal, supportive, brain damaged husband.

The Purse That Won The Pitch

A few months ago, our gang here at Phelps had the opportunity to pitch a great new account based in Phoenix.

We really wanted this baby so we pulled out all the stops — research out the ying-yang, multiple creative exploratories, integration across all platforms — the works.

On presentation day, everybody was ready to roll…except me. At the time, my wife and I were living in a hotel room due to some heavy-duty remodeling going on at our house. So my mind — and my things — were totally scattered.

At 6 a.m., as I was getting ready to leave for LAX, I realized I had left my leather briefcase at the house. I had nothing to carry my presentation materials in. I was screwed.

But before I could panic, my wife said, “Don’t worry, just take my black purse, no one will even notice.”

She was wrong. All the way to Phoenix, my teammates had a great time teasing me about the pretty design and delicate lines of my lovely black purse.

The only criticism I got was from our media director who pointed out that my purse didn’t match my shoes. In response, I repeated a line my interior decorator once told me, “It doesn’t have to match, it just has to go.”

Despite my fashion faux pas, our new business presentation went extremely well. We got lots of accolades, shook lots of hands, and as we were leaving, we almost made it to the car when their VP of Marketing called down the hall,”NICE PURSE, HOWIE!”

I reached down deep to my feminine side and thanked him for being a true gentleman. Then we flew back to LA and waited to hear. I guess we were up against some pretty stiff competition because the news didn’t come for another three weeks.

But when it did, it was celebration time. We won!

I’m sure there are many people who would argue that we won because of our brilliant strategy, our inspired creative campaigns and our sparkling presentation skills.

I think we know the real reason.