Christian Cervantes is good at growing every day

“Grow every day” is the mantra Christian Cervantes (Creative Director and Co-Founder of Calienna) lives by. We had a great talk about his life in the US and Europe as Creative Director at Mother New York & London, the industry in general, the creative process and the most important thing to him and his wife Miri: Calienna, the beautiful green oasis in the heart of Vienna. Plan a bit of reading time, this is a long one, but it’s worth every minute!

Christian Cervantes

„It is our ambition to help increase consciousness and to inspire growth into our everyday lives.“

Thank you for taking the time, my friend. Your life story alone could fill a book, but try to summarize it as succinctly as possible: from California to New York to London and now Vienna: how did it come about?

Ha! Yea, it’s been an adventure with many different chapters. Orange County, California > LA > NYC > London > Vienna plus small 3 month stints in Florence, Paris and Barcelona (where I met my wife Miri). I would say design, curiosity, passion and a drive to develop my own identity has always carried me from place to place. I grew up by the beach in a pretty picturesque beach town in Southern California. I spent many of those years skateboarding and snowboarding which introduced me to lots of brands I identified with, which originated near my hometown: Stüssy, Vans, Volcom, RVCA, Girl, Element, DC, Toy Machine, Etnies, Big Brother magazine… I mean the list goes on and on. I grew up riding in the 90’s so it was a sort of golden era of intuitive design that was real and raw. And of course snowboarding brands like Burton, Lib Tech, Gnu, Ride and Blunt magazine were super influential. The graphics, the vibes, the riders, the crews, everything. I wanted to be part of every aspect.

I also grew up in a music scene that varied from hardcore and punk to emo to ska to hip hop. It all nourished me with live music, radical ideas, underground sensibilities and a crew of friends who inspired one another to explore different worlds.

How did you get into advertising/design back then? What fascinated you?

Once I discovered that a lot of the skate/snowboard stuff I loved was mostly graphic design and that it could be a job, I decided to take night courses, put a portfolio together and got eventually accepted to Art Center: College of Design in Pasadena, Los Angeles. This was definitely the most life changing experience I had up until that point. I spent four years in the Bauhaus inspired school, with disciplines in design (graphic, industrial, automotive), photography, illustration, film and other super inspiring mediums. I made lifelong friends and we just worked our asses off. Everyone there was driven. It was competitive but a healthy competition. I split my time between graphic design and photography. After graduating, a bunch of friends and I moved to New York.

My first job was at BIG (Brand Innovation Group), a sort of design think tank within Ogilvy & Mather. BIG was founded by Brian Collins who now has an amazing branding agency, called Collins. He took a number of us under his wing and championed design thinking. He also bridged the gap between design and advertising which hadn’t really been done well up until that point. He is definitely visionary and I learned a lot from him. I worked for him for three years and then freelanced in a few branding and fashion agencies before landing at the one and only Mother. This was the start of a really exciting part of my career and I ended up working in that beautiful puzzle of an agency for 8 years. It, and all the magnificently creative minds there, shaped me like no other place I had ever worked before. A massive props to my mentors and friends Michael Ian Kaye and Robert Saville for not just believing in me but for also constantly pushing me and giving me endless opportunities to grow. They are truly extraordinary and raised the bar for me and so many others.

Beautiful! We’ll talk more about Mother in a bit, just another quick question before: how would you compare life in California with life in other places you stayed? Especially now here in Vienna?

I am deep down a southern California kid. I feel very lucky to have grown up there, especially by the beach. Orange County was a lot different growing up than it is now. It was more chill and laid back. I grew up riding bikes and skateboards barefoot and shirtless. It was always sunny, super chill and unpretentious. That said, it was a bit too comfortable of a life and I wanted to experience more than what was available there. Moving to Los Angeles definitely opened me up and showed me a lot but it was still too relaxed for me.

Moving to NYC was a massive life changing experience. I was there for 11 years and, now in retrospect, I can definitely say that in that time I maximized that experience. I definitely sucked the marrow out of the bone! New York is nuts, day in and day out. There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t see something crazy. And people there are super real. I always recommend living in New York once because even a year there will change you. „If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere“ is such a cliché but these things are clichés because they tend to be true. I owe A LOT to that city.

I was quite insecure in my 20’s and pretty competitive. My mom was a single mother who raised two boys on her own and ran her own company. My brother is ten years older than me and was MVP of every sports team. You could say it was a competitive family and we learned it from our mom. I moved away because I needed to prove myself, not just to them but to myself. In New York people hustle harder than anywhere I’ve ever been. Back then there was no work/life balance whatsoever and it felt impossible to even try to find it. It felt like everyone was from somewhere else and they had come to New York to grind until they made it. When you’re completely surrounded by that kind of energy AND you’re already hungry and competitive yourself, well, it takes you places if you put in the time.

One of those experiences led me to London where I worked as a creative director in Mother London. I was asked to open the design/branding group in their main office in Shoreditch, East London. Truthfully, I never wanted to live in London as I had never really connected with it before but it was a great career opportunity and it got me to Europe, which I wanted as a permanent home-base. I lived/worked in London for four years. I really love London now but my wife and I just couldn’t see ourselves there long term. Since we were looking for a change of pace, London just didn’t fit the requirements for us. We also wanted to exit the agency life and build our own thing.

For the first time in my life since leaving home, I feel settled here in Vienna. I love it here. So many people have asked me why I’m not in California or even New York. I just appreciate the balance and the priorities here. It is definitely slower, but my wife and I had our fill of the fast-paced life. With time and experience I now see that a lot of what drove me in the past didn’t necessarily come from a healthy place and I’ve outgrown a lot of that. I’ve discovered more of what makes me truly happy and inspired and I’d rather be in a still place where there is time to collect one’s thoughts and not feel external pressure to constantly perform. Having said all that, we decided to start our own business here at the onset of a pandemic, which has been a wild roller coaster like nothing we’ve ever experienced. Ironically, we definitely now work harder than we ever did but now it’s ours!

A lot of other big cities are oversaturated but I feel like Vienna has so much incredible potential balanced out by a down-to-earth attitude. I really respect the city and I feel so very fortunate to have the opportunity to grow here personally and professionally. My wife is Tyrolean, so it was interesting for her to move back into her home country. She loves living in Vienna. Now, we live in our own little world within Vienna and we’re excited to contribute in any way we can to the fabric of the city.

I hear a lot of people complain that it’s not a progressive or exciting a city as others but I’ve learned that everything is what you make of it and you get what you give. Nothing changes until you do. A lot of people want others to change but don’t challenge themselves enough to do the same. When we built Calienna, we envisioned building something that was like a hub. We’ve made so many interesting and talented friends here who are pushing things in their own way and I love that this is our community here. So yea, I love Vienna and am proud to live here.

„Nothing changes until you do. A lot of people want others to change but don’t challenge themselves enough to do the same.“

And I think Vienna is happy to have you and Miri! Which experience has been the most formative for you so far?

New York by a landslide. Nothing comes close. There’s just nowhere in the world that touches it. It’s so intense, exciting, diverse, imaginative and endlessly challenging. Sure, cities like Tokyo, Paris, London are major spots too, but for me it was New York.

I only visited it once, but you could definitely feel that energy. But living/working there is something else, of course. Speaking of working, let’s circle back and talk about Mother, one of if not the best branding agency in the world. How was it to be at the top of such a great agency?

I think one of the reasons I left the agency world was that I knew that there wouldn’t be anything better than Mother other than building my own thing. Mother is like a cult in the best possible sense. There are other great agencies like Wieden + Kennedy but I’d say that’s the only other one I’d hold in as high regard as Mother. Even then, Mother is still the best in my mind when it comes to company culture. It’s just weird and wild and fun and playful and passionate and courageous and nuts. You cannot explain Mother. You either get it or you don’t. Not everyone made the cut. We were highly selective of who was invited in because it was so special. It still is. The people who run it are some of the most creative people I’ve ever met with the biggest hearts. You can’t be called Mother and not be kind. Of course there are egos (they are everywhere) but Mother is driven by passion and creativity. It could have sold to a huge conglomerate years ago but it has stayed independent for over 20 years. That says a lot when agencies sell themselves left and right to the highest bidder.

Specifically, I helped run the design/branding group Mother Design. We worked across most disciplines and brought a strategic design muscle to Mother’s offering. I loved working with so many disciplines (strategy, advertising, experience, PR, digital, etc) across such a range of clients/projects. We worked in so many sectors: tech, fashion, food, spirits, health & wellness, finance, hospitality, entertainment, sports, art, etc. Towards the end I was helping to run the design group and juggling an endless array of projects across the entire agency as well as helping to maintain the culture of Mother.

What do you think is the best process for creating world-class branding? And what do you think are the biggest mistakes?

Oh man, this is a big question that I could talk about for hours. But to try and sum it up, start with a great strategy. Without that you’re just building on top of quicksand. So many clients come to an agency and want the show. They want the magic dust to make their brand cool and relevant. And some agencies put on the show and don’t bother to dig deep which is why there is so much bullshit out there. Many times a client would come to us and say „make us relevant“ and we’d say, „okay but we have to take a step back and define why you or your product even matters.” Many times that takes too much time and money that they didn’t account for internally so it gets put to the wayside and they go for a quick fix. But you either pay for it upfront or you pay for it later in an ineffective design/campaign/experience/etc. It’s why so much work is just so forgettable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done decoration a number of times but that’s all it ever was. It wasn’t long lasting nor that effective and ultimately not so satisfying. But when either the agency/studio or the client doesn’t do the hard work upfront then all it really becomes is decoration or worse wallpaper, you just don’t pay attention to it. Sometimes you can get something great randomly but that’s not a smart way to run a business, brand nor an agency. It’s like trying to hit the bullseye on a dartboard with a blindfold on.

Also, now that my wife and I run our own business and brand I feel I see both sides much clearer. So many creative agencies/studios create branding that looks great in a PDF on glossy touch points they’ve photoshopped to sell in the concept. It looks great in the made up poster on the street, the collateral and social media stills in the picture of the phone, but branding needs a core concept that has flexibility to adapt to a changing environment, yet many things are just one dimensional, stylish ideas. It looks great in the case study but a great looking case study doesn’t mean it was successful. I know this because I’ve helped make some pretty impressive yet embellished case studies!

That’s something else worth mentioning as a big mistake. It’s sooooooo easy to make a fake case study with fake applications of the branding. We made them. Everyone makes them. It’s something I got increasingly tired, bored and frustrated by. The internet and social media rewards people for putting out what is essentially “fake news”. It can’t be denied. At this point every agency and studio does it because it’s rationalized as necessary to compete and get new business. The BIG problem is, it’s instant gratification without the hard work of actually getting that billboard produced, or that product made or those shirts printed. It’s all hype and self-deception.

Now, so many younger, under-skilled people are essentially faking it until they make it but you don’t get better by faking it. You only get better by facing a challenge, oftentimes struggling to make the work and feeling the fulfillment and satisfaction of pushing through to actually create something real. Some might argue “well, what is real now?”. “If people see it, is it not real?” There are so many charlatans in the industry. Deep down you know when you’re full of shit and when you’re not.

Anyhow, I’m done with that and those people. At Calienna everything we put out is 100% legit.

Truth well spoken. We’ll talk about Calienna in a sec, just a quick detour: what’s the difference between advertising and design in your eyes? And where are cuttings that should get more attention?

Advertising and design people are like different species. In general designers like structure and often advertising people think structure is too restrictive. Advertising people think conceptually and I’ve found designers are not so conceptually developed. They are amazing makers but it can be humorous when a designer tries to sell a “concept”. The concept can often be something ridiculous like circles or gradients with some superficial rationalization. Often their directions are rooted in aesthetics which don’t have a lot of depth to them. Advertising creatives can be amazing conceptually but they don’t tend to be makers or craftspeople so they depend heavily on others to interpret which means they must be very clear, which isn’t always the case. Of course, I’m just generalizing here. I’ve worked with plenty of very talented designers and ad creatives who transcended these stereotypes.

I used to always say that good branding is like a long-lasting, strong, healthy marriage and advertising are the things you do to keep the marriage fresh and exciting. Advertising should never be the brand. It’s always the reverse. Apple is a cliché example but it still strongly illustrates the point. Everything they do revolves around a core DNA. That’s the brand. The operating system, product design, innovation, logos, advertising, website, store design, customer service, packaging, social media, PR, etc all revolve around the core DNA. That way it works like a holistic entity that is consistent and everything pays everything else off. If you don’t have an understood core DNA then everything the brand does ends up being different for different needs based on the leading person’s guess as to what the brand is or how it should show up. That just leads to schizophrenic decisions and a brand that is all over the place.

In my experience, when advertising people without strategy or branding backgrounds try to develop that core DNA they usually approach it from an advertising perspective. Advertising is important because it is meant to get attention and get people excited but it doesn’t tend to be long-term thinking. This is where strategists are fundamental.

Right, totally with you. Where would you see the biggest difference in working/living compared to New York, London and now Vienna?

I think it’s safe to say that the clients and budgets in New York and London tend to be much bigger and therefore competition is much fiercer. As a result of that kind of challenging environment, the innovation, the work and the talent tends to progress faster.

It’s not all dreamy though. In the US there is no social safety net, guaranteed healthcare nor free university so it’s dog eat dog and highly competitive, for better or for worse. The UK isn’t that drastically different. Those places have insane wealth gaps between the rich and the poor and as a result very little contentment. You’re paid A LOT more in New York and London, like crazy money, but then the cost of living is mind boggling. As a result people hustle harder to make more which can definitely feel like a hamster wheel. It may not be the healthiest environment nor very balanced but it does definitely drive innovation.

Here in Vienna, though, I see a strong middle class and therefore far more contentment than I’ve ever seen anywhere else besides perhaps Scandinavia. These places are just healthier and have a better life balance. It doesn’t mean it has to be a trade off but I think motivation is often at its highest when there is an imperative to work really hard.

What do you think are the problems of the industry in general? What needs to improve or change, and how can you motivate young people to want to work in the creative industry again?

I think diversity in hiring as well as equal pay for men and women are glaringly obvious. Companies with only men in leadership positions feel pretty outdated and old school these days. Being out of the industry loop for years now, I don’t know how much emphasis is placed on these topics here in Vienna.

I think young people, like anyone, want to be inspired. Leading by example is really the only way I know. Cool offices and perks are great but if the leadership isn’t setting the best example and always evolving then I don’t know why younger people would feel motivated to give their all.

That said, I do think the younger generation’s priorities and expectations are different than when I was in the thick of it. There seems to be a lot of demand without first delivering results and doing that consistently over time. Now everyone is a brand with a social media following so there is less dedication and people jump from place to place (in NYC and London at least).

Agencies are pretty interchangeable and I’ve always found it ironic that so many advise brands yet don’t have a real brand of their own that has a clear reason for existing.

Which follows up to this question: why did you leave the industry?

Ha! That’s a big one! Believe me, it wasn’t easy. I don’t think a lot of people in my position would walk away from what I had worked so hard to achieve.

I just got so tired of giving my energy and ideas to others/things I didn’t believe in. After advising agencies and brands for so many years I just felt like my life had become a version of that Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. Towards the end I was super frustrated and depressed. I was managing more and more people and projects and it was stressful and it just stopped being enjoyable. If Mother hadn’t been such an amazing agency I would have probably left earlier but towards the later years that wasn’t even enough for me to stay. I actually knew a few years earlier that I wanted out but I stayed in because I didn’t want to let others down, especially those who had given me so many opportunities.

Since I was eight I have wanted my own brand. There are logos I would make for imaginary brands I would come up with. It’s super weird to think back on that and as a kid that’s what I wanted! As long as I can remember I just wanted to build my own thing. When I discovered the power of design I was hooked. Working with all the amazing mentors, agencies and clients I was lucky enough to work with throughout my career was so incredibly exciting and offered me endless possibilities to flex that muscle. After a while though, I just felt like continuing that path seemed super predictable and boring, plus I had zero interest in starting my own agency. Even the idea of being a partner at Mother wasn’t appealing. There are a lot of cooks in that kitchen, like most agencies. It’s always been about building my own brand and all those years were absolutely fundamental to where I am now.

Ok, it’s time! Let’s talk about your dream come true: Calienna! How did you realize that you want to do that, and ONLY that?

Like I said, I just wanted my own thing and in this case it is with the love of my life and partner in everything, Miri. We had talked for years about doing our own thing but we weren’t sure what. At about the same time she was going to Columbia Road Flower Market every weekend. I’d never seen her so passionate about anything like this. She was tending to her plants, making bouquets, and would spend the entire weekend cutting and arranging. It was like therapy for her. She always said that it helped her after spending so many hours on a computer every day doing work she frankly wasn’t super inspired by at this time. She was able to talk her boss into a sabbatical in which she went to study at the famous McQueen’s school. She loved every second of it and eventually we knew she needed to pursue it professionally.

All this was much easier said than done. We both were earning good incomes with our careers and naturally this would be a financial hit. But we both knew that what we were doing was sustainable for us and at least she could explore something else while I kept working at Mother (there could be worse fates 🙂

Miri soon realized that she didn’t really want to be a florist. While the industry is beautiful, she very much questioned the sustainability aspect as a part of it. By this time we had careened into the plant world.There were some amazing shops in our neighborhood and we just kept buying plants. Over the years, it completely changed our home environment and made us incredibly happy being surrounded by this new green energy. Miri became completely obsessed, much more than with the flowers. She was studying every free minute she could and eventually went to work for a popular plant shop in London.

We started to conceptualize Calienna in 2018 but at that time it was all so abstract! The story from there to here was such a crazy ride, it’s hard to summarize it. I have a PDF from 2018 where I tried to get all our thoughts down and articulate some kind of vision for ourselves. I looked up “how to make a business plan” on Google and basically answered the first overarching questions to just have some kind of structure. What’s awesome is when we read that document now, it’s actually a pretty great articulation of what Calienna would come to be.

Towards the end of our time in London we both freelanced and eventually took a leap of faith and moved to Vienna, freelanced some more, slowly chipped away at the concept and eventually started to test the waters and look for spaces. How we got our space is an incredible story but that’s for another time…

In the beginning, we formed two businesses: Calienna and a design studio under my name. We had no idea if the store would work and so as a backup we knew I could earn good money by continuing to work with clients on branding and design. That never happened though. Calienna became what we both did 24/7 and truthfully I was happy not to work with external clients any longer.

„The creative process is pretty transferable to almost everything.“

What things have you learned over the years that have helped you the most in developing the concept and branding for Calienna?

After spending 15 years advising brands from all industries, big and small, you see so much overlap. You just start to recognise patterns and you feel more confident in what works and what doesn’t. I’ve worked on so many strategies and it just forces you to think harder about what you’re doing as well as to develop a clear vision for the project. Calienna is no different except for it’s ours and because we have poured ourselves completely into it. We obsess over every single detail – when it comes to the plants, the design, or the coffee. I used to care a lot about my other projects in the past and gave my all, but with Calienna I’ve never cared as much as I care about it.

Usually you hear people describe the love of a child in a similar way. And I think unless you have children you can never know that kind of love. I think something similar can be said for creating your own business. It’s part of our identity now and it’s no longer a job. It feels more like a calling. It genuinely feels like there is some kind of cosmic push behind us which fills me with so much passion and energy like nothing I’ve ever felt before.

So, yea, I get a very clear vision in my head of what I want to create and it’s hard for me not to pursue it. After years creating in so many mediums I don’t ever restrict myself by saying “I don’t know how to do this” or “I’ve never done that before.” I just learned to make, make and make more. The creative process is pretty transferable to almost everything. I made so many things that never saw the light of day but I got very good at having ideas quickly and then making them happen, whether it was me personally or I directed a team of people. I’ve worked with so many different kinds of creative people, crafts people, makers and builders that I developed a fluency that allows me to communicate and connect with people so that we’re both clear on what to do and excited by the ambition. That’s often how great work is made.

The concept and the branding of Calienna is SO deep that it’s too much to go into here. Believe me, every detail has a reason and a purpose. I am rarely interested in anything that doesn’t have some kind of deep concept to it.

That’s beautiful. And every detail shows that love and passion, either in the store or on social media. How was it for you to step into a completely different profession, to suddenly see business problems that we might not always see from an agency/service provider perspective?

Honestly, the perspective shift is radical. It has been life changing. Working within an agency, clients come and go and some projects might last months while others last years. Either way, you’re not really responsible for their business and it’s quite easier to sit outside what a client is dealing with in their day to day lives.

It’s actually important that you’re not weighed down by their everyday realities, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to imagine alternate realities for them. Brands get so caught up in their own small worlds and businesses. Even brands like Nike, Google or Apple can be myopic. They have internal politics, bureaucracy and egos and they need outsider perspectives to find alternate solutions, so they work with agencies and studios to help break through what they’re used to.

At an agency you can be working on several different projects, switching gears from one client to another, one industry to a completely different one. It can be fun and refreshing but you’re never fully invested. I worked for Mother (for example) and that is what I was committed to. I would try very hard for our clients but if it didn’t work out I wasn’t really going to suffer that much from it.

Now, having one’s own business is a massive change for both of us. I’m trained to have ideas and vision but having those things is not enough. You have to follow through and luckily that is where Miri and I really compliment one another. She is brilliant and she is really an amazing partner. She is so determined to finish what she starts whereas I can get distracted with a new idea. She really makes Calienna work from a business perspective. She’s a badass and there is no way in hell that either one of us could do this without the other. She was sculpted in the agencies she worked in, which were more strategically focused and she got very good very quickly because that is the kind of person she is. She works incredibly hard, and as someone who also works incredibly hard I have so much respect for her and her abilities. She holds us truly accountable. Literally, she does the accounting! She doesn’t love doing it but she does it and I am in awe of her for that and for so much more that she makes happen.

Running a business is hard as hell. We were very naive as to what we were getting into and that’s probably a good thing, especially because we got into it right before a worldwide pandemic! That’s definitely a test. Thank god we knew how to work hard because this was unlike anything we had ever encountered. I thought I knew what hard work was but nothing compared to starting our own business during these times. Honestly, I just don’t know how one achieves anything of value without hard work.

In general, I think this perspective shift has made us both so much more well rounded. It’s dissolved some of our immaturity and naiveté but it hasn’t killed our curiosity or excitement about the unknown.

What is your vision for Calienna? What are your plans for the next few years?

I think I’ve said more than enough for now. I’ll just say that 2023 is going to be awesome and we’re so excited to show everyone what we’ve been working really hard on. You can definitely expect the unexpected.

Looking forward to this!
Thanks for the great talk my friend, I’m sure it will inspire many people. And a special thanks to you and Miri for supporting me the way you did in building Good At. You guys had a great impact in many ways.

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