Are You a Cowboy or a Farmer? Managing the Tension Between the Pioneering Spirit and the Need to Cultivate The Land

Frederic Remington 'A Cold Morning on the Range'

Frederic Remington 'A Cold Morning on the Range'

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 or cowgirls; 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.’

Grant Wood 'American Gothic'

Grant Wood 'American Gothic'

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 cowgirls 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
cow,
But that's no reason why they cain't be friends.’ 

The Farmer and the Cowman, Rodgers and Hammerstein

No.115

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 13

Truth Amplified: Is Now the Time for Verismo Advertising?


‘Now then you will see men love
As in real life they love, and you will see
True hatred and its bitter fruit. And you will hear
Shouts both of rage, and cynical laughter.’

Tonio, Prologue, Pagliacci

In December I attended a magnificent performance of Ruggero Leoncavello’s Pagliacci at the Royal Opera House.

Pagliacci was first performed in 1892 and it is regarded as one of the definitive verismo operas. The term ‘verismo’ derives from the Italian word ‘vero,’ meaning ‘true’. In verismo composers sought to break with the operatic tradition demanding stories of deities and mythical figures, nobles and royalty. Verismo concerned itself with the lives and relationships of ordinary folk.

Over its brief seventy-five minute running time Pagliacci tells the tale of a touring theatre company beset by plots and rivalries. Among the company is Canio, the clown, who rails against a life in which he must play the fool while his heart is breaking (‘Vesti la giubba’). It is one of the most moving arias in opera.

Pagliacci is not a mere everyday soap opera. It deals in extremes of passion and emotion. It is a tale of lust and jealousy, of intrigue and infidelity. It conveys a heightened reality. It is truth amplified.

I think the world of brand marketing could learn something from verismo. Firstly, of course, the most effective communication tends to feature regular everyday people, rather than the wooden marionettes of advertising cliché. But, secondly, the best work often puts those average people in exceptional circumstances.

Because of its brevity advertising must always distil; but, in order to create impact, it must also intensify. It amplifies truth.

Moreover, Pagliacci illustrates how to manage a dramatic ending. The story culminates in two tragic stage deaths. At the last the actor, Tonio, addresses the audience: ‘La commedia e finita!’ (‘The play is over!’) Perfect.

‘The Most Difficult Thing To Do Is What’s Most Familiar’ (A Giacometti)

I recently visited an exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s portraiture at The National Portrait Gallery.
Giacometti grew up in a small Swiss village and his early paintings of his family are colourful, sunny and seemingly effortless.

Photograph: Tate London 2015

However, over time, and as his unique personal style developed, his portraits became more intense. He subjects his sitters to scrutiny. He locates them in the centre of the canvas, facing straight out at us, almost confrontational. He labours to capture their essence in the stillness; to distil the truth of their identity. He repeatedly scratches and scrapes at the paint until he is satisfied. The works are often small-headed and hollow-eyed. The sitters seem alone and remote. Staring out at us in grey, black and brown, they haunt the space.

Reflecting on Giacometti’s relentless pursuit of his subjects’ vital presence, the exhibition notes quote Samuel Beckett:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

In the world of brands and marketing we deal in the everyday and familiar. But this doesn’t make our jobs easier. If anything it makes them harder. Stripping away the clichéd, extraneous and redundant; isolating the human essence, the genuine insight, the cultural nuance. These are genuine challenges. Only the truly great practitioners can make the ordinary proclaim its vital truth.

The Benefit of the Doubt

1965 looms large on the London stage at the moment. The Trafalgar Studios are hosting an excellent production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (until 13 February). This great play was first performed in 1965. Meanwhile the Wyndham Theatre is staging Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic Hangmen (until 5 March), a work largely set in 1965.

In 1965 the Beatles played Shea Stadium, Bob Dylan went electric, Ali beat Sonny Liston and West Ham won the European Cup Winners’ Cup. But these two plays consider more sinister themes.

The Homecoming tells the story of a long-lost son returning with his wife to his robustly working class North London family home. It’s a place of masculine threat and inarticulate regret. The past haunts; violence is just around the corner. Speeches are coded, veiled, misleading. There seems to be so much left unsaid.

“The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don't hear… One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.” 
Harold Pinter

McDonagh’s work considers the plight of Britain’s last hangman at the time when capital punishment was abolished. He doesn’t let us settle. Is he condemning hanging and the culture that accompanied it? Or is he criticising the sixties liberalism that swept it away? His characters are difficult to pin down. Again there is menace, mistrust, misgiving. Sometimes the audience laughs when it should be disturbed. Perhaps comedy and fear are more adjacent sentiments than we might imagine.

One walks away from both plays with a sense of unease and uncertainty; with more questions asked than answered. It’s actually quite a satisfying sensation because, of course, life itself is marked by doubt, mystery, ambiguity.

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” 
Harold Pinter

For the most part we consider modern commerce a field for certainty. We strive to deliver openness and transparency. We earnestly endeavour to make brands comprehensible and credible. We convey approachability, accessibility, familiarity. We explain ourselves.

But I wonder would some brands not benefit from embracing a little more mystique, an aura of expertise, a suggestion of secrecy? Imagine a brand that asks more questions than it answers; a brand with hidden depths, not manifest shallows.

Should we not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt?

No. 64