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In a pinch, the Internet can be a creative's best friend -- or worst nightmare. It's not unusual to cuss out the Web gods at 3 a.m. for creating a bazillion possibilities after a simple search like "dog." But more and more creatives are using Web stock as a way to get un-pinched, and the stock houses are making sure they're there to provide solutions. "Going to the Web was just an evolution in the stock photography business model," says FPG COO David Moffly matter-of-factly. But Moffly's steely composure belies how daunting it can be for stock houses to make the digital jump.

Photodisc, the Image Bank and Tony Stone Images all started planting cyberseeds over two years ago. FPG is getting ready for its Web launch later this year. Like most, they had already introduced catalogs in digital format on CD-ROM. But the Web, it turns out, is a different beast.

Although trolling the Web is not new to most, searching for stock on it is. Art buyers and creatives alike are just beginning to understand the benefits. "The best time to use it is if you are looking for something really specific," explains David Wilgus, a Web enthusiast and associate CD at Temerlin McClain, Irving, Texas. "You can key in a word and have access to a ton of images at once, whereas the catalogs can be very random in their presentation." Wilgus considers the Web for almost any print situation, and he has a company account set up with the Image Bank.

Miguel Nogueras, a senior AD at FCB/New York, like many, is a would-be user. "I've never ordered anything because it's such a new thing, but I would totally use it if we had accounts set up somewhere," he says. Access codes and PIN numbers are the only ways to order images off the sites, and in this case, the creative department hasn't taken that step yet.

"I think [looking for stock on the Web] is something that will be more prevalent six months from now, and I'm sure in five years there will be much less dependence on stock books," says Gary Goldsmith, executive CD at Lowe & Partners/SMS.

Nevertheless, Goldsmith still relies on books to find stock. "I like the catalogs because I can Xerox pictures and hang 20 or 30 of them up on the wall and I suppose you could do that on the Web too, but it just seems more complicated," he admits.

No doubt there is something intimate about holding a photograph rather than seeing an image on a computer screen. Just as the time will presumably never come when people curl up at night with a good computer, the Web images are not meant to replace the stock books. "We want to provide our clients with as many images as possible, and it's just another tool for creatives and designers to use," explains Diane Fannon, managing director at the Image Bank.

Web designers and engineers are working hard to make electronic stock-shopping a cinch. Perfecting the search engines has been at the top of the to-do list, and that requires a peek into a creative's way of thinking. "The most difficult thing is finding words to describe visuals," says Fannon. Walking the line between stating the literal and leaving room for the conceptual has turned keywording into an applied science. For instance, Picture Network International (PNI) took a different approach to keywording by implementing its own natural search language (now patented by PNI). Instead of typing in a keyword, the user can type in a concept like 'air combat,' and get not only a picture of a jet fighter but one of Michael Jordan as well.

PhotoDisc has gone through the painstaking process of researching top Net marketers and innovators to see what creates a pleasurable online shopping experience. "We spent a lot of time becoming more sophisticated in understanding the whole decision-making process that designers and creatives go through when choosing to buy an image," says PhotoDisc director of electronic commerce Blake Park.

That research led to the creation of PhotoDisc's most useful tool, the virtual lightbox. The online lightbox allows the art director to go to the Web, pick out 10 images for a particular project, then tell a client to go directly to the site to approve the images. This saves the agency the time and trouble of calling in too many images it will never use, and it saves the ever-frugal client some money. "The client can pick three images out of 60, which makes for a lot less risk of art getting lost in the shuffle," says Michelle Jackson, an art buyer with JWT/New York. "Right now we mostly use the Web when we're in a jam, or as an editing tool to reduce the number of chromes that we get into the agency."

Due to the high volume of stock that an agency like JWT calls in, the art buyers often have someone at a stock house run a search for them, with results sent over the Internet. "Unless what we're looking for is incredibly involved, they can put together a search for me in as little as 10 minutes," says Jackson.

The images are digitally watermarked until purchased, and usually provided in medium-resolution quality. When an image is paid for, the client receives an 'unmarked' high-resolution image that can be downloaded for the finished product.

Don't be surprised to see an increasing amount of stock books used to level uneven desks. The leading agencies are already making their hits on the new Web sites, and the others are revving up their modems. While there's nothing like holding a chrome in a your hand, there's also nothing like the convenience of a

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