Milk agency founder’s 20-year brand success

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Ben Reid is the founder and Managing Director of Milk NZ, a strategic brand and packaging agency based in Auckland.

Tell me about Milk NZ and what you do?
We’re a strategic brand and packaging agency started in 2004 and based in Tāmaki Makaurau. We love working with businesses of all sizes, diving deep into data and insights to find human truths that have genuine meaning and impact for customers, consumers and businesses.

Over the past 19 years, Milk has worked within a diverse range of categories, both in NZ and beyond, with a focus on using design as a tool for problem-solving and transformation.

What’s something unique about Milk as a design agency?
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.

Describe some of the challenges you overcame in the early days?
The saying ‘too many eggs in one basket’ is real for me. About 6 years ago we had one large client with one large platform that we were responsible for. It was an ongoing project. At the time this project was a good portion of our revenue, and the business had built up to service it.

Without warning the large business ran into trouble and started cutting budgets which became concerning for us, and then eventually put the whole platform on hold. This had a significant effect on us and it was a dicey 6 – 12 months to get out of that hole. We had to make some structural changes ourselves, the only time we’ve done this in our history, and I’ll never forget how gruelling it was – for the people it affected, but also for me as this is far from the value set that I operate with. I swore to myself, I’ll never get into the situation again, and thankfully, so far I haven’t.

Milk’s seen its revenue triple over the last five years, what do you credit to your recent success?
It’s only been in the last 5 or 6 years that we’ve honed in on what our strength or place in the world is. We’ve always been creative and used design as a tool for transformation, but a big shift for us was understanding what we were actually good at. 

“We’re always pushing, changing and adapting what we do, and how we do it.”

We now work in diverse areas – from business and customer research, brand strategy, creative strategy, identity systems, packaging and communications. It has taken a long time to build the team, the processes and structure to be able to genuinely deliver on this work at a high level.

I believe our ability to achieve this in an influential way is what’s helping us with growth – a genuine ability to transform businesses and packaging portfolios. Ultimately it’s about our people and their capabilities.

Milk swept the floor in this year’s Best Awards, tell us more about your work with Blunt Umbrellas on their rebrand?
Uniting as an agency-client team, we worked with BLUNT Umbrellas to develop a new brand identity and positioning as the business shifted beyond umbrellas to a wider lifestyle brand.

Together we built out a global brand platform that aligned product love with brand love – bringing together heart, emotion, and character with a rich visual language. Outputs include a new wordmark and ‘B’ symbol, a new global custom typeface ‘Blunt Sans,’ as well as re-engineered packaging to align with BLUNT’s sustainability goals.

It was an incredible opportunity to be a part of this transformation as BLUNT prepared to expand into new product categories and global markets, allowing us to flex our strategic and creative muscles on something impactful!

What do you think makes a great design / brand team?
Diversity. Again, it’s all about people and their abilities. Being multi-disciplined really helps us with the work we do. We’re able to complete most work in house as we have illustrators, typographers, retouchers, packaging designers, brand designers and strategists. But we bring it all together in a nimble structure, not as an overhead hungry machine.

With the agency’s 20th anniversary right around the corner, what are some other proud moments?
Another highlight for us was in 2021 when we were recognised on the global stage. We were ranked 11th in the world by the prestigious D&AD awards in the UK, and in the company of some amazing design studios like Apple, The New York Times and Collins. This was an absolute career and studio highlight.

And what are some of your observations about the NZ agency landscape 20 years ago compared to today? Is it easier, harder, more opportunities?
I’d say the biggest single shift I’ve seen over the last 20 years is the importance of the role of brand in the eyes of business owners, especially small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs).

Brand is now seen as a core and integral part of a business that can’t be forgotten. For context, we currently have about 12 or 13 brand projects across NZ and Australia in the studio. 10 years ago, we would be scratching around for 1 – so that has been a significant shift.

What’s one goal that your agency is working towards? 
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.

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