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Not too long ago, stock footage was considered pretty lame -- a last resort for a bad-weather day; a creative compromise when your muse is AWOL; or the only way to stay within a budget that's just too tight. But like its once-shunned cousin, the stock photo, stock footage is making serious headway in the creative industries.

Helping to lead its charge is Michael Albright, a long-time agency veteran who folded his Los Angeles boutique, Albright Creative Services, last year, and joined his then-client Energy Film Library as VP-sales and marketing. "Stock cinematography in the old days was really boring. Not until I started working with Energy as a client did I realize how far it had come," says the 43-year-old Albright, who's won more than 150 awards as a freelance CD and at places like Ogilvy & Mather and Wells Rich Greene. "People used to see stock as a very middle-of-the road product. Now we're looking at it as a tremendous resource that will empower you. It's strong in concepts and metaphoric in nature."

Well, he would say that, of course, but it's true that stock footage is finding its way into creative tool boxes everywhere. "The quality of stock houses has increased dramatically from five years ago," believes Caroline Marchionna, CD at Chicago-based Brown Marketing, who says her agency uses stock footage at least monthly for clients like Principal Financial. "The fact is, stock is a realistic application to many of the business issues we have to deal with. I love to be able to go out and film something. But sometimes you have only three days and $20,000."

Getty Communications, parent company of Tony Stone Images and PhotoDisc, acquired Energy two years ago in anticipation of a major stock footage boom. In terms of sales, stock footage is still considered a cottage industry, but it's starting to blossom thanks to a number of factors. The quality of images has improved; price tags of desktop video editing systems are more modest; art directors are technically savvier than before; and a boom of cable stations and Web sites is further fueling the stock footage market.

How times have changed. "Fifteen years ago, no creative director would've been caught dead using stock photos," recalls Albright. "But over time, stock became a real industry standard." In fact, he warns, "one of the flaws of young art directors today is they turn to stock photos first and create concepts after. It should be the other way around."

Referring to Energy's 35,000 hours of footage (anything from time-lapsed sunsets to vintage news reels to personal hygiene films), Albright insists that stock footage offers an "unlimited supply of clay" that can only enhance a creative effort. "Of course, nothing will ever replace the fun of doing a shoot. But for when it's appropriate, the footage that's available is incredible. And it allows you to maintain control."

Albright spends most of his time on the road managing some 50 salespeople and researchers in Energy's offices in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, London and Munich. Although he misses the pitch process, he says he's found plenty of other outlets for being creative. "When I accepted this job, I had no idea that I was in for such a fierce battle with other players. The level of competition forces me to be creative in a whole new way."

He has also been working furiously to launch an improved Web site that'll go live in late August (www.energyfilm.com). The site will allow users to download clips into a bin and then share it with their workgroup via e-mail; it also accepts orders online.

Of course, there will always be those who prefer to do business the old-fashioned way. "I still like having a rapport with all the different libraries we call," says Wendy Carter, head librarian at Fox TV. "I get a lot more from someone's actual voice and personal knowledge of the collection than from a

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