The following article, based on an extensive interview with Tony Stone in London, was
written by Sarah Saunders and first appeared in Visuell in October 2001.
Sarah Saunders writes regularly for Visuell about the stock industry and digital imaging
developments. She runs Electric Lane, an image industry consultancy and training company based
in the UK. Electric Lane helps businesses of all kinds handle their image workflow from
production through to print or digital use.
Tel: +44 20 7607 1415, E-mail: email@example.com,
By: Sarah Saunders
Tony Stone, "father of the industry", is back in the business. Since he sold Tony Stone Images
to Getty in 1995, he's been watching developments in the image world from a safe distance. Now
that the dust has settled on his deal with Getty, he is clearly keen to get his teeth into
something new at the leading edge.
Tony Stone Images, still the most successful of the Getty brands, started in 1962. Although he
began as an editorial photographer a few years earlier in Capetown, he trained in London as an
advertising photographer, and started his business shooting and selling flower images to
chocolate box and greetings card markets. As demand grew, he employed in-house photographers,
and his subject matter broadened to include landscapes, kittens and other subjects.
"It wasn't quite up my street, my true hero was Cartier Bresson, but I saw it as a golden
opportunity to bring expertise to an area shunned by talented professionals." The agency side
started by chance when a Cadbury's buyer admired a photo of the Dolomites on a calendar on his
office wall. "I'll get it for you" Stone said. "Some of it was incredibly corny stuff, but we
did it better than most and we flavoured it with style."
In the early 70's, now servicing all the major commercial markets, Stone started the first of
his master dupe collections. This was to be a major turning point. "I'd always spent a lot of
time analysing sales. I'd noticed that although we tried to shoot nothing but saleable photos,
only 5% of them actually did sell. I thought, what's the point of shooting the 95%? It created a
very disciplined approach, to try and understand what made some images sell and others not at
all. This crazy obsession is still with me."
In the 70's and 80's, the customer friendly approach - so essential now - was not yet widely
adopted in an picture industry known for its cussedness. But Stone was passionately interested
in customer response from the start. He says, "The way a photographer saw an image was often
influenced by his memory of the shoot and what was happening outside the frame. The customer's
response was determined only by what was seen within the frame, so our editors brainstormed to
understand this process. It enabled them to help photographers create content which was
entirely relevant to the purpose of their images."
"We were always talking about it, always honing our skills. We'd go to advertising conferences
and other events to be amongst people who were using pictures. We sought the views of top
creatives and had to take it on board when they told us in the late eighties how stiff, how
unreal, so many of our images were. It was quite unusual then, and still is amongst most visual
content providers, to speak to customers about creative style."
"We were the first people to create rights protection. We did it from the beginning with a
system designed to handle in-camera dupes. By the end of the eighties we could make more than
a hundred non-conflicting sales around the world in a year, all from a single image duped maybe
80 times. This gave customers all the exclusivity they desired, and photographers a high return
on their shoots. Because the dilution of photographers' revenues was an issue, we worked with
fewer photographers and fewer images than our competitors. Our photographers earnt more, were
highly motivated, they bonded with us, and helped us prove that stock imagery could be
consistently better than most commissioned photography. This has always been my approach and if
I get into the industry again it will still be my approach."
Tony Stone is a photographer, and remains close to photographers. But his is a highly
disciplined market-led approach, and he has little time for the purist approach to photography.
"If you are taking pictures for a market you are not a fine artist. Creativity as well as
content must be tailored to serve a commercial audience, and the creative styles in a stock
collection must be widely varied to meet the tastes of customers. There are stock providers now
who have riveting up-to-the minute photography, but much of it is often commercially irrelevant.
The images are very attractive to art directors, but when they try to use them they find it very
By the time he sold Tony Stone Images to Getty Images in 1995 worldwide revenues were over 60
million dollars and 95% of that came from the 30,000 images in the master dupe collection. With
hindsight Stone is still not satisfied with that statistic. "The amazing thing is that even in
the 30,000 there were a load of images that hardly sold, so we didn't get it quite right. As I
re-emerge in our industry, my aim is to get it right next time round, by demonstrating a method
for acquiring only the images which customers buy."
Stone has been driven from the start by the desire for quality, getting the picture right,
working out how to do it better and the understanding that quality, in this business, is defined
by the customer. Those values have been shown to work, and other agencies have adopted a similar
market-friendly approach. So why are we now faced with such multitudes of online images; many
mediocre, most of which will never sell? Has the market not learnt anything from the last 30
According to Tony Stone it's not that easy to create the criteria for relevance and get people
driven to be very tight editors. "Most people are convinced that if you have a million images,
you'll have something for every conceivable need, you'll find exactly what you want by pumping
in keywords, so why bother to have a small collection? My answer to that is that even if the
images people want are all there, present search systems ensure that they get in each others'
He is scathing about keywording systems. "You couldn't design anything more effectively to be so
inefficient. Almost invariably keywords call up huge numbers of irrelevant images." So why do
libraries - and that certainly includes the major players - insist on the scatter-gun
approach? He comments mildly that it is indeed surprising given that the best of his editors are
now dispersed in other libraries throughout the industry. He points out that in a market of,
say, $400m, universally poor editing and search systems might not be reducing the numbers of
pictures sold, all they do is make image searching a long and inefficient process. "But this
means that there's now a singular market opportunity for the first content provider who can
solve the industry's endemic editing and search problems."
It is a turbulent time for photographers in the stock industry, and Stone is sympathetic. Some
of the long-established libraries have not dealt with them as sensibly or as constructively as
they should. He recognises that changes in the commercial environment mean that some libraries
will do very well, but thinks some of the new portals may be storing up trouble for themselves.
They set out by taking on too many photographers and far too many images. "Photographers who've
escaped from unhappy experiences with some of the established players may be heading for
discontentment with the new ones. Even if they ramp up their sales very fast the revenues they
provide will be diluted amongst too many."
There will have to be changes, he says. It is not enough to simply throw pictures up on-line.
"The business generated by a million images is not very much when only one in a hundred has a
realistic chance of selling, and the photographer is left with the bill for paying for 99 scans
for every picture sold." However Stone remains interested in the portal companies. "Some of them
are run by very bright people. If they are learning as fast as I think they are, they are going
to be very viable companies in the future."
In the drive to get images on-line, what has happened to the customer experience? In visual
terms, on-line searches are often uninspiring. Stone says, "This is the great conundrum. On the
one hand you have to brand your site and let your audience know you understand the way they
work, and that can make for a pleasurable and bonding experience. But the guy looking for
pictures doesn't want the distraction of branding devices. He just wants to move through screens
to find images. If that process works well, it's all he needs to make him happy." He agrees
there's a way to go yet to improve the customer experience. Online searches are still
cumbersome, and it's nothing like finding pictures in a good catalogue. "A catalogue offers
lots of opportunities for serendipity. It's a better experience. I don't think anybody has
thought out how to do it online, but I believe it can be done."
Why did he sell such a successful company? "I had put in a lot of effort over the years, and
thought it was time to capitalise on that. Tony Stone Images had become number one and it was a
good time to reduce the number of work hours and the stress." Stone is proud of his legacy to
the Getty empire, which includes of course his name. "It was a very strong brand and it was
quite clear they had to keep the name. They acquired a global photo library
- we were the world's leading visual content provider with the best name for creativity and
professionalism . Our programme of acquiring new collections and agencies was already well under
way." Stone knew the company needed more funding to continue its growth and make it to the top
in the new growth areas of film and illustration. He says the platform, the momentum, and the
plans for future growth were already there. Other than that, it was a change of name.
Is Stone happy with the way things are going at Getty? He comments : "The Stone brand still
maintains a great image among many customers, and that gives me a lot of pleasure. But many
photographers have been made discontented by rather insensitive treatment. That makes me unhappy
too because we always took great pride in having wonderful relationships with them. But they're
now running the business in a different way. In some respects they have been doing
extraordinarily well, in others less so, it seems they've created enormous costs by acquiring
companies that have added little to their brands, and indeed create a sort of brand confusion.
It's a legitimate business approach - businesses often merge and it can take time to achieve the
full benefits. As an outsider, it's hard to tell whether Getty is becoming as efficient as it
would like to be at the speed they would like to go."
Stone knows what he wants to achieve, but for the time being he is not specific about his future
plans. He says, "I am talking to a number of companies. I'm hoping to attract one or two of them
to a new global strategy and a new product which will provide customers with rapid access to
imagery which is entirely relevant to their needs."
For a somewhat different perspective on the things Tony Stone talks about in this article, see
Jim Pickerell's analysis in Story 453 .