While the use of stock images, video footage and audio is sometimes derided, there’s no doubt of its ubiquity within today’s online and offline marketing.

Stock images, video and audio have always been available, but never with such convenience and at such low cost. This is great for those on a low budget, who can achieve high production values which compete with much bigger brands.  

What’s the problem?

It’s rarely a technical one: most stock is pretty good at a technical level and much of it is excellent compositionally too.

The cynical side of me is that there’s an element of snobbery. Because it makes impactful design easy, it’s mocked by some creatives who feel that the best work is original and from the heart. I think while this is true (after all, the world’s best marketing and design isn’t based on stock) it fails to recognise that such levels of creativity may be beyond the budget and timescales of many clients. It’s idealistic, not realistic. 

And there is a sameness to a lot of stock which can make marketing materials bland, forgetful and unoriginal. Though I would perhaps say that this is partly how the design is executed, too – perhaps even largely so. A hack idea is a hack idea – and original images, video or audio won’t rescue that.

Yet a lot of stock is undeniably tired; but worse, doesn’t represent the real world. A specific example would be the young, beautiful, happy booted-and-suited people who populate most office shots. They don’t look like offices I visit, where there’s a greater range of ages, physical types/builds and type of clothing (in fact, suits-to-work is a sartorial code that’s terminally on the decline in many sectors).

Though not without downside, stock images, video and audio can still play a central role in good marketing. The choice of image, the underlying idea and content strategy can steer us away from the most tired stock and audio/video choices. As creatives, our role is surely to guide rather than dictate – the client may not ‘know best’ but may well know what she or he wants.

For many projects, using stock makes honestly no difference. A great picture of a cat is a great picture of a cat. I can choose to use one from a library, or I can hire a cat model, photographer, groom and studio and multiply the client’s cost a hundredfold or more with no benefit. Using stock can save time and money. I refuse to be ashamed of this. True, if we were working on a campaign where the cat is the central character, then that’s the approach to take – no issue there.

If I needed video footage of New York from the air, the bill to commission it would be thousands of dollars – and it would take weeks to arrange. I don’t feel creatively compromised to use this from stock. (Even big Hollywood directors use stock where it makes sense or recycle sections from other movies. You’ll find recycled footage from The Island in Transformers. Blade Runner contains footage shot for The Shining. Indeed, you’ll find stock footage in many movies, even if directors don’t shout about it.) Kubrick commissioned an original score from Alex North for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but abandoned it in favour of the classical music he’d originally had to hand when editing the film (simply to help judge its pace, which is a common process). The fact that it’s Strauss and Ligeti may significantly elevate the status of the music, but in context this is stock nonetheless. It was an artistic choice, not a budgetary one.

The key question to ask is: are these visual and audio choices right for the brand, the project, the story and the budget? (In some cases, let’s face it, time offers no other solution and there should be no shame in that either.)

It’s true that stock can engender lazy creativity – rather than thinking first about the story which needs to be told, trotting off to a stock site to find something quickly and build a design around that. But, sometimes, this works too.

Stock exists and there’s a solid place for it in many projects. It shouldn’t be shunned for the only reason that ‘it’s stock’.