Are you a cowboy or a farmer?
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! features a song called ‘The Farmer and the Cowman.’ This jaunty number explores the musical’s central tension between the farmers, who have an instinct to settle and cultivate the land, and the cowmen, who naturally want to move on and pioneer new territories. Brian Eno, the master musician, producer and artist, has observed that this tension, between cultivating and pioneering, is fundamental to our understanding of creativity.
‘I often think that art is divided between the farmer and the cowboy: the farmer is the guy who finds a piece of territory, stakes it up, digs it and cultivates it – grows the land. The cowboy is the one who goes out and finds new territories.’
It’s a thought provoking distinction. And perhaps all of us in the field of commercial creativity should ask ourselves: What kind of creative am I? Am I more adept at pioneering or cultivating? Am I a cowboy or a farmer?
I suspect most of us would like to imagine ourselves as cowboys; as experts in reframing, redefining, reinventing; as intrepid adventurers intent on discovering new frontiers. It’s the more romantic choice. Indeed this is Eno’s own understanding of himself.
‘I would rather think of myself as the cowboy, really, than the farmer. I like the thrill of being somewhere where I know no one else has been.’
But let’s not be too hasty.
Many of the world’s great artists could perhaps be described as more farmer than cowboy. Think Mondrian, Giacometti, Rothko or Pollock. They worked within a coherent conceptual space, repeatedly revisiting a relatively narrow terrain; making it their own through variety and depth of expression. They ‘grew the land.’
Moreover, in the world of commercial creativity ongoing brand success requires high levels of consistency and coherence: campaigns that build a positioning; initiatives that sustain and evolve a theme; executions that nurture an idea with imagination and freshness.
My former boss Sir Nigel Bogle would often talk of a brand needing to ‘move it on without moving it off.’ This task can be just as critical and just as challenging as complete reinvention. It requires the calibrated embrace of context, a more nuanced understanding of past success, a respect for ideas that were not invented here. But do we properly appreciate, celebrate and reward the ability to evolve, nurture and cultivate? Do we really acknowledge the worth of the creative farmer? Or will we always prefer our creative cowboys and their mastery of the blank piece of paper?
Perhaps a little predictably, I’m inclined to say that a healthy creative business needs both cowboys and farmers. We need to be able to pioneer as well as to cultivate; to reinvent as well as to refine. And critically we need to know when to adopt each of these two modes; when to stick and when to twist.
As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it, ‘the farmer and the cowman should be friends.’
‘Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.’
Thsi piece first appeared on Jim's blog here.