Business: Milk NZ

Founder: Ben Reid

HQ: Auckland

Tell us a bit about yourself and your business.

I started Milk 19 years ago alongside Simon Cairns, and it’s been quite the journey. My background was in design, and I spent some time working in the industry in the UK before coming home to start Milk. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of creative endeavours and commercial outcomes. Even at art school I was having exhibitions and selling work.

On the eve of our 20th anniversary we have an incredibly experienced, multi-disciplined creative team. We work with all types of businesses, of all sizes – from startups to blue-chips – diving deep into data and insights to find human truths that have genuine meaning and impact for customers, consumers and businesses.

We’ve worked in many categories and industries – from service based to product based businesses, FMCG to lifestyle – in NZ and globally with a focus on using design as a tool for problem solving and transformation.

What excites you about working with SMEs?

One thing that Covid taught us is that SMEs are the backbone of our country, and I’m inspired by so many businesses who are striving for differentiation and improvement. Starting a business is a notoriously tough journey so the opportunity to help transform and elevate them is fulfilling.

I’m also excited by the things they teach us, and what we learn when we unpack them. Working directly with senior leadership or owners who have the mandate to drive significant change creates an environment fuelled by ambition and growth. It’s a dynamic space where every project is unique, and despite Milk’s 20 years of experience, the approach remains flexible and malleable based on client needs, industry nuances, and the ever-changing context of the world.

SMEs are adaptable, and despite being labelled by size, have so many diverse traits, skill sets and experiences. Overall it’s so rewarding to have an influence with these businesses who are ready to make genuine impacts in what they do.

Ahead of your 20th anniversary, describe Milk’s growth journey over the past two decades.

The past 19 years of running Milk has had its ups and downs, and lots of lessons along the way. Running Milk for such a long time has meant I’ve had my head in the sand a bit, and with little outside influence, I definitely found it to be a lonely place and questioned my decisions more than I would have liked. So, to move forward I had to find new perspectives and draw off of the incredible people around me.

I’m lucky to have found my two business partners Sarah Melrose and Anthony Hos (Creative Director and Design Director) who, besides being amazing individuals, brought expertise and different ways of thinking to the table. Together, we redefined the Milk model and the value we deliver. We’re more research and strategy based, we build design systems not just identities and translate this into packaging and communications.

Over the past five years we’ve been the best we’ve ever been, and we’ve doubled the size of our team. But beyond scale, we can see our growth in the quality of our work, our strengthened relationships, and we’re looking ahead with even more ambition.

What differentiates Milk from other agencies?

We have a philosophy of Betterment – We’re always pushing, changing and adapting what we do, and how we do it. Every job is an opportunity to apply ourselves differently, and find ways to adapt to exactly what our client needs.

Part of that is not having a house style, we’ve made it a priority to never design for design’s sake. Everything we do is based on the audience, the world they live in and the industry or category.

Thirdly, it’s people, and at Milk they’re a unique group of multi-talented individuals at the top of their game. They’re the ones that will transform businesses and brands. Our portfolio is a reflection of their capability.

What are some recent projects that you’re proud of?

The latest project that we’re extremely proud of was a collaboration with BLUNT Umbrellas on their rebrand, supporting the business as they shifted beyond umbrellas to a wider lifestyle brand.

We united as an agency-client team to unearth BLUNT’s story, whakapapa, purpose and ‘why’. This translated into a new brand positioning and identity setting the business up for future growth as it expands into new product categories and global markets.

It was an incredible opportunity to be a part of this transformation, and we have been blown away from the response in the design community, particularly at this year’s Best Awards, where we took away the Purple Pin for Graphic and emerged as one of the most awarded studios.

What do you think is the key to Milk’s success?

Something that took us a while to get to but has been instrumental in our success is simply understanding what we’re actually good at. We’ve always been creative and used design as a tool for transformation, but we had less awareness of what our strength or place in the world was until more recent years.

If I had to articulate it, I think we have a unique ability to connect human insight to business and brand strategy, then translate that into robust design systems that can then express themselves in various ways, like packaging or communications.

What are your future plans for the agency – both locally and beyond?

An exciting next step for us is expanding further into the Australian market. Our vision is to see the success we’ve grown in Aotearoa and replicate that across the ditch, and we’re currently working on a strategy to integrate into Sydney. Right now we have a satellite office but no one on the ground. We’re hoping to grow our numbers there over the coming years.

On home shores, a tangible goal we’re working towards further growth by the end of FY25, while strengthening our place in the local design and brand community.

What advice would you give to other business leaders trying to establish their names in New Zealand?

Perseverance – Pulling from one of the biggest business success stories of all time, it was Steve Jobs who said perseverance is the most required personal attribute needed to run a successful business, and I completely agree. Adaptability – A business that you start today will inevitably be a very different business in five years time, morphing and changing just as you do.

People – As an agency, everything we do is about the people. Our people are our future and what clients are buying into, so it’s really important to not only find people who are doing work at the top level, but also ones who have shared values and enjoy the ride just as much as you do.

Finally, brand. It’s a critical business part. If you believe in brand, and integrate it into every part of your business then it’s capable of being transformative.

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