Last October they created a frenzy in supermarkets, with hundreds queuing for bottles of their boutique chocolate milk. Now Lewis Road Creamery is at it again, releasing new flavours — and fervour. Alan Perrott meets the man hotting up the supermarket dairy aisle and finds out why we’ve all fallen for his expensive, hyped products

You know it's a big day at Lewis Road Creamery when half the office is on Facebook.

It'd also be fair to say that it's also the closest these boutique dairy merchants ever get to actual farming - you don't see too many cows chewing the cud on the third floor of downtown Auckland office buildings.

Instead, if Lewis Road is milking anything, it's Facebook likes and though there's a smidgen of tension in the air (today being launch day for two new products) the staff seem far more excited about having clocked up their 100,000th Facebook tick.

Now if you're unfamiliar with the name, cast your mind back to last October, when the great chocolate milk frenzy descended on the North Island. That one remains a head-scratcher, it's not as if it was a revolutionary combination, yet for some reason we went mad for the stuff, with queues jostling at supermarket fridges as security guards watched on to ensure no one got too aggro or, worse, exceeded their two-bottle limit.
It's an expensive drop, too, a detail that almost became a selling point and went some way to encouraging the country's first flavoured milk blackmarket. A few cunning buggers even tried flogging off counterfeit brews in used bottles.


So what are the odds that the red mist will descend again over the new coffee and vanilla flavours?

That's why three of the five staff members present at Lewis Road today (there are nine in all) are Facebooking full-time. It's as close as they get to what might pass for an advertising campaign. The intention is to reply to every comment as it pops up and not with a pithy "cheers" or "thanks" either, everyone gets several personalised sentences expressing gratitude, contrition or guidance depending on the flavour of the post. It's about creating community and is pretty much how their chocolate milk went bananas.

It's a process as organic as the product they're selling and it's the kind of stuff that has Peter Cullinane beaming. As one of the original auteurs of the New Zealand advertising industry, his hop from marketing to product development carried certain risks, not least the one to his ego, and so far every product has been a winner: "It's like, man, I knew this stuff would work, so it's wonderful to demonstrate that we from the advertising world really did know what we were talking about."

Actually, from listening to him, pretty much everything is wonderful, brilliant and bloody good. And why wouldn't it be? Since stepping away from the big chair in Saatchi & Saatchi's New York office, the 62-year-old has kicked off yet another high-powered agency, Assignment Group, while also finding time for two masters degrees, securing seats on several boards and kicking off not only Lewis Road Creamery but Antipodes Water Company too. He even does his time tending the Facebook page.

Maybe it's because he's familiar with success that he appears relaxed about today's events. Will they sell? "Don't know, there's no way of telling," he shrugs, "it's all seat-of-pants stuff really. I might be able to tell you in a month."

Until then, he has something far more important to do: he's off to see one of his sons in New York, then heading on to Jackson Hole where he'll join former Olympic rower Simon Dickie and chef Al Brown in Team Kiwi, their annual entry in the One Fly fishing competition. Last year

they finished 20th out of 40 teams, with Cullinane placing 102nd out of 160 competitors.
"It's like a Republican convention, everyone's Rockefeller the third or something, but it's bloody good fun."

The story of Lewis Road Creamery begins more than a decade ago and, in a funny sort of way, comes together in two men, his dad and Osama bin Laden.

More on Osama later, but Maurice Cullinane was a decorated Lancaster pilot flying for national domestic airline NAC who passed his love of butter (spread thickly on sliced bread) to his son. He'd grown up on a farm in Tangiwai, where he even took to making his own: "He ate lots of it and managed to live to a ripe old age," says his son, Peter, "so I think I've got this really neat emotional connection to the stuff ... "

As a teenager, the young Cullinane dropped out of Victoria University to take a job at advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. As with most things the experience was "brilliant, bloody brilliant", in part because advertising was still finding its feet here and this was one of the first agencies to foster "wild ideas".

After three years he set off to see the world and got as far as the hellhole of Whyalla, Victoria where he worked at the BHP steel mill. "I was the only English speaker on my shift, I guess they couldn't find an Aussie stupid enough to take the job."

He was stationed at the three-storey high ovens where, protected only by heavy wool, he did nothing but shovel molten slag back into the inferno: "It was utterly Dickensian, unbelievable conditions ... I hated Whyalla."

His morale wasn't improved by the knowledge that he'd left the woman who'd become his first wife, Lizzie, at home, so when a call came saying a job was available with another agency, Mackay King, he came home. Still in his 20s, he joined a Wellington company that rapidly grew to being one of the top three agencies in the country by the late 80s. Even he says there was a fair amount of luck and good timing involved when he found himself running it.

Then came the 1987 stock market crash and the British mega-agency Saatchi & Saatchi bought them, a change that did no harm to Cullinane's career prospects. By 1994 he was running that, too.

"They were great days, we were working really hard but we made sure we had a hell of a lot of fun, too."

He hit it big in 1997 when he became Saatchi's New York-based worldwide chief operating officer. He loved living in New York with his second wife Vicki and his daughter Grace - right up until the morning two airliners smashed into the Twin Towers.

Cullinane was overseas that day and spent hours fruitlessly trying to contact his wife as she watched the world change from their Manhattan apartment. They were suddenly an awfully long way from home.

"I think everyone had a bit of a soul-search after that - 'hang on, what am I doing here?' - and for the next year there seemed to be a new rumour every week of another one happening and it was like, 'how clever is this?' So I resigned."

A story in Ad Week in January 2002 suggests a falling out with Saatchi's CEO Kevin Roberts played a part as well but, regardless, 9/11 became Cullinane's cue to activate a gardening leave clause that prevented him from working for anybody for a year.

Off to France he went, where he took a cooking class and reflected on an earlier conversation with his old Saatchi offsider, Kim Thorp, about getting the old band back together. The timing felt right so in 2002 he brought his family home and the pair launched creative marketing agency Assignment Group: "The idea was that we'd only work for clients we really liked and we'd charge jawdropping fees so that we'd get everyone's attention."

Which isn't too far from the Lewis Road philosophy that rather than being a deterrent, high prices can indicate value and quality. Cullinane calls it a "deeply held belief" that will always shape the way he works.

His belief was going great guns when Group co-founders Cullinane, Thorp and Howard Grieve caught up with old friend and former owner of Metropole bar, Simon Wooley, and began batting around the next big idea. At some point Wooley asked why they were drinking French water and, voila, Antipodes Water Company was born. If you've eaten somewhere flash you'll have probably seen their water being poured from oversized laboratory bottles.

Antipodes is a story unto itself, but it involved two elements crucial to the chocolate milk story, one was the bottling plant and aquifer they eventually built in Bay of Plenty's Otakiri (on Lewis Rd, to be precise), the other was the punt that kicked it off in the first place.

"I've dealt with market research all my life," says Cullinane, "and I have to say I don't know if it's particularly useful. For the most part it's bored housewives sitting around a table drinking instant coffee. I think you're better off using your intuition, backing your hunch. I'm great believer in that it's not about having a lot of ideas, it's more about keeping the window open and recognising the good ones when they fly in. And this was a good idea."

By now, Cullinane was balancing two companies, had taken a chair on the board at SkyCity and also returned to university for a master's degree, which as a high-flyer who was still in demand as a business speaker carried a fair potential for embarrassment. With failure not an option, the risks primed him for a eureka moment of his own while shopping at the Victoria Park New World on a lazy Sunday.

As a lifelong butter fan, he'd been driven "dotty" by the variability of the local product and had swapped over to Lurpak. "I was dropping a pack into my trolley when I thought 'hang on, this is silly, this is New Zealand, why should I have to get Danish butter?'"

So he detoured to the non-food section, grabbed an Agee jar and headed home where he found a YouTube clip of hillbillies making butter in the Appalachian mountains. If he only discovered how easy it was to make truly lousy butter he was now excited by the possibilities ("it just felt huge") as he left for dinner with friends, where he couldn't help himself from blabbing about his new idea. "Then one of them said 'you're going to take this seriously aren't you? You're not going to do it out of the boot of a car?' And that's when I decided that I was really going to get stuck in and do it."

So, after a quick "you don't know me, but if I make this stuff would you sell it?" pitch to the manager of the Victoria Park New World store, his plan to slow down and live off a few directorships was forgotten.

He wasn't alone for long either, a manager at the Antipodes plant got wind of his idea, jumped on board and started doorknocking local farmers to get some milk. It wasn't easy, Government regulations make dipping your toe in milk difficult unless you're an existing player or have deep pockets, but enough milk was found, along with an old refrigerated fruit-packing plant where they could get churning. The vats of cream were laid out as the air-conditioning cranked into life and blew six months of accumulated crud over everything.

That wasn't going to work, so they fitted out a container at the Antipodes plant and started all over again. The bigger problem, though, was the milk was neither from Jersey cows (Friesians are only good for bulk, says Cullinane) nor organic, so they approached Green Valley Dairy, the largest organic farming operation in Australasia, for help. "No problem," they said. It's a common response, says Cullinane - Fonterra even allowed them to use one of their wrapping machines. "The people in this business are overwhelmingly positive and happy to help."

The resulting artisan butter took off to the point where Lewis Road's various sub-brands now make up 50 per cent of the organic market while their premium lightly salted product won this year's inaugural champion butter award. Both their other entries won medals as well.

But it isn't enough. Lewis Road might be small and nimble but, says Cullinane, "opportunity and need are the same thing. We have to keep moving quickly or our big competitors will copy and then roll over the top of us."

Besides, his ambition is to recreate the entire supermarket dairy aisle in their image. The question of what to do next arose just as Assignment Group was working on an advertising campaign with Whittakers. Aha, and two meetings later chocolate milk was born. Cullinane has previous experience here too - he was in the room when the late-lamented (by some) Zap flavoured milk got its name back in the 80s.

It didn't seem much of a risk - milk has a shelf life of only two weeks, so if it flopped they'd simply stop making it and do something else. Still, Cullinane's trepidation can be seen in the $20,000 he put up for advertising. "When I'm covering all the cheques there's a limit to how many I'll write."

The resulting madness still amazes him. For an old-fashioned advertising guru who preached the gospels of television, print and radio, social media is not only an entirely new tool, it's become Lewis Road's only tool. Cullinane's daughter became their first Facebook roadie and it's where they direct all their energy.

Whether it pays off for the new flavours (and he was told adding real coffee would be impossible), he's not so worried: all going to plan, a range of extra-creamy icecreams will hit the market over summer and, judging by his comments on sour cream ("Have a look, it's got Halal-approved gelatine in it. Why does it have gelatine? It never used to, let alone Halal-approved stuff") that may not be too far away either.

"Fundamentally, we're trying to take things back to the way they were made in the past, simply and with the best ingredients we can find, and even if it's just the way we imagine that they were made it's still the way we think they should be made."

And that's just the start. If he had his way, Cullinane would stop shipments of milk powder tomorrow, then make the whole country organic and set about producing nothing but the highest-end products with the most jawdropping prices imaginable and conquer the world.

Until then, though, he'll make do with getting his butter into Waitrose, "just to tick the box really". You can bet they're already friends on Facebook.