Bas Korsten enjoyed waves of pop-culture attention in 2016 when he and J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam unveiled “The Next Rembrandt,” an early AI project that used machine leaning to create a brand-new, computer-generated painting in the style of the Old Master—a pretty convincing fake that greatly unnerved the art world at the time.
But that was a drop in the bucket, he says, compared to the response to his latest project, “The Mammoth Meatball.”
Unveiled in the Netherlands last week (no, it wasn’t an April Fools’ prank), the meatball was created from the DNA of the long-extinct woolly mammoth and its closest living relative, the African elephant. It was produced, from Korsten’s idea, by the Australian food-tech company Vow as a buzzy way to educate people about lab-grown meat (also known as cultured or cultivated meat), which is Vow’s business.
As a marketing stunt, it was a huge success, with earned media mentions everywhere from business magazines to late-night talk shows. All of which left Korsten, when Ad Age caught up with him at week’s end, giddy to see the conversation happening globally around a topic that’s long fascinated him—how lab-grown meat could ease the climate crisis and provide consumers with more nutritious and tastier foods options, and how Vow is taking a unique approach in the space.
“It’s been quite a journey,” said Korsten, who’s now global chief creative officer of Wunderman Thompson. (The campaign is credited to Wunderman Thompson Benelux, with a production assist from the agency’s Sydney office.) “Of the 150 companies in this space, 149 are doing things the same way—trying to replicate beef, pork and chicken. Vow wants to go for something more exotic.”
The reason is simple. If you replicate beef, pork or chicken, Korsten said, people will naturally compare it to the original—and may be disappointed. (“The best people will say is, ‘This almost tastes like chicken,’” he said.) But if you experiment with proteins from more far-flung animal sources, you can develop textures, flavors and combinations that are new and exciting—and potentially even better-tasting.
“It's a missed opportunity not to take advantage of the potential of cultivated meat to revolutionize the way we think about food,” said James Ryall, chief scientific officer at Vow. “Rather than simply replicating existing products, this technology offers us the opportunity to create something truly unique and better.”
Vow has been working with dozens of proteins, from zebra to crocodile. Its first product, now available to eat in Singapore, comes from Japanese quail. But Korsten realized it would take something even more exotic to really get people’s attention—to make them aware of and more comfortable with lab-grown meat as it’s poised to come to market, and to pressure more governments to make it legal.
At the same time, Korsten had been interested in the separate debate among scientists, as well as organizations such as Revive & Restore, around bringing extinct animals back to life in the interest of biodiversity—a process known as “genetic rescue.” Ultimately, the mammoth meatball idea came from combining these two topics—it was a way to talk about lab-grown meat by connecting it to the built-in fascination around the return of extinct creatures.
“How do you talk to people about the future of food? It's not going to happen with a chicken dumpling. You need more of a statement,” Korsten said. “A zebra steak might have gotten some headlines, but nothing like this.”
The mammoth was also a symbolic choice. The animal went extinct some 4,000 years ago because of changes in the climate. Thus, it serves as a warning for where humans might be headed, too, unless we change our food source.
“The land use, the water use, the CO2 emissions produced by the meat industry, we're not getting less people on earth, and we're also not eating less meat—so we need to find a sustainable solution, or a million species will go extinct before 2050,” said Korsten. “That's exactly what happened to the mammoth. For me, it’s a point about where the future is going if we don't watch out.”
Korsten emphasizes that he doesn’t want to bring the mammoth back—“for us, it’s about bringing the taste of a mammoth back.” But the association with genetic rescue has stirred interest in cultured meat overall and what Vow creates specifically, and how it can help the planet and the animals we share it with.
“This is the first time a lot of people have been confronted with lab meat,” Korsten said. “We used to eat mammoth meat. Now we can eat it again, but we don't have to hunt down the animals. What people hopefully take away from that is that we don't need to slaughter the 80 billion animals we slaughter every year. Apart from the climate change impact, that’s the other important part of this—animal well-being.”
For the record, Korsten hasn’t actually tasted the mammoth meatball himself. For one thing, doing so is currently illegal in the Netherlands. But also, there are legitimate health concerns, at least for now.
“This protein hasn't been alive for 5,000 years. We have no idea how it will react inside a human being. That needs to be tested more thoroughly before we ingest it,” Korsten said (though he did add with a smile: “I’m not saying nobody in this process tried it”).
The broader legalities around cultured meat from country to country are a whole other hurdle. Even just shipping the meatball from Australia to the Netherlands was an ordeal. It was classified as a biohazard, so Vow had to kill any living cells in it by dousing it in formaldehyde before shipping it, Korsten said. They also spent weeks sending different kinds of meatballs to the Netherlands as tests to see what would pass customs.
If all this eventually helps enact change, though, it will have been worth it.
“I’m glad we got the attention we got, so governments can speed up the approval processes,” Korsten said. “Why is it possible to eat it in Singapore, and very soon in the U.S. and Australia, but not in the rest of the world? That's also why we had our launch event in the Netherlands—not just because it was a Dutch idea, but because we still can't taste it in the Netherlands, which is ridiculous.”
Vow faces other hurdles in the coming weeks, including the threat of a lawsuit from Paleo, a European competitor, which says it developed the technology to create mammoth myoglobin two years ago and filed patent applications at that time. Still, the mammoth meatball should be a great business driver, providing priceless PR as Vow prepares to launch Forged by Vow, a line of lab-grown meats, in the coming months.
“I'm glad it’s opened people's eyes to the way we eat meat and how we could change that,” Korsten said. “Plant-based is also a good alternative, but we need to play more on the selfishness of people who want the best-tasting thing out there, and aren’t doing it out of guilt.”
As a creative leader working to get all of his agency’s projects noticed out in the world, Korsten has marveled at the global pickup of the story. One of his favorite takes came from Stephen Colbert, who said Vow’s goal of “mixing and matching cells from unconventional species to create new kinds of meat” sounded a lot like Taco Bell.
“This is ‘Next Rembrandt’ times 50,” Korsten said of the attention.
While the magical idea alone did most of the heavy lifting, it was helped along by some traditional media—product shots, images crafted in the style of print ads, a well-choreographed launch event, and even a short documentary about the project produced by Wefilm and directed by Juliette Stevens.
But though it has some of the trappings of a traditional campaign, it’s far from that, said Korsten.
“These ideas are what make our industry interesting,” he said. “I do a lot of day-to-day work and I fulfill asks from clients. But I think, as a creative, you need to lead the way. You need to go where no one has gone before, in order to tell clients, ‘Hey, maybe there's something there.’ I work for Unilever and Nestlé. Think about that. This kind of creativity—where would it take them?”
Seven years after his last big pop-culture hit, Korsten also chuckled as he reflected on the ups and down of going viral in the ad world.
“I used to think, ‘I hope I'm not going to die as the ‘Next Rembrandt guy,’” he said. “But I don't know if dying as the ‘Mammoth Meatball guy’ is any better. So I’ll probably need to do something else after this.”