William M. O’Barr interviews Paul Cappelli about the creative process in advertising. Cappelli, now President of The Ad Store which he founded in the 1990s, previously worked on the Coca-Cola account at McCann-Erickson Worldwide. Cappelli talks personally and candidly about the origins of his creative ideas and the process of transforming them into finished advertisements. O’Barr, who has known Cappelli for more than a decade, asks Cappelli to reflect on his best ideas and to discuss his (Cappelli’s) differing interpretations of his work before different audiences and at different times.
I remember talking with you in 1988 when we first met about the creative process. I’ve thought often about what you told me. I hope we can recapture some of those stories in this interview and also bring your experiences up to date.
So let me start with the question that intrigues those of us who look in on advertising: “Where do you get your creative ideas from?” People outside advertising are fascinated by this question. We want to know about the birth of an idea and how it makes its way to the finished advertisement that we see on TV or in a magazine.
I’d like to check my memory about the story of applying for your first job and the prospective work you produced for that. Do you remember that story?
No. Which one was that?
Oh, right. That was at the School of Visual Arts.
Is this a true story? Or is it something you made up?
Oh, no, it’s a true story. It was not so much about my first job; it was actually my first class in advertising. It was when I first learned that writing copy was not about writing puns. That’s really more the realm of journalists or headline writers, or tabloid newspapers where they can spin words and write puns and make it seem fanciful and interesting.
The assignment at the School of Visual Arts was to write an ad for Crayola Crayons, knowing that the target audience is not only children but also the parents of the children who will be buying that thing for their kids. So how do you get them, the parents, to think differently about the product — in this case Crayola Crayons? The teachers wanted us to use just a box of Crayola Crayons, the way you would see it in the store, as the visual. That to me seemed kind of boring and kind of expected, and I guess, too clean for me. I thought about it for a while, actually a few days and I was coming to a dead end, and all these ideas were coming to mind were ideas about turning your child into an artist — the Picasso in your kid and all this other stuff — which all seemed far-fetched to me. So I brought it way down to earth...
Far-fetched or commonplace?
It was actually far-fetched. Do I really want to think of my child, who is 4 years old, 5 years old, 6 years old, as the budding Picasso? It was just a bit much for me. It did turn out to be commonplace because that is the direction all the other students went, which made it very commonplace. I think that assignment is still given out today, and those are still the ideas that most people come up with. So I made it much more — not commonplace — but much more everyday, in the sense that an image came to mind. Being a writer you’re only supposed to think about words, or you would think, but I think my ideas start more from visual places than they do word places for the most part. So the visual that came to my mind was reaching back and trying to put myself back in the place of a kid and Crayola Crayons. Only one thing came to mind, which was broken crayons with the wrappers halfway ripped off, sitting all around the floor.
Because this was your experience?