How Wunderman Thompson cooked up a mammoth meatball

Creatives Jasper Korpershoek and Bas Korsten take us behind the scenes of this year’s most high-profile (and mind-boggling) campaign so far.

кем Mark Tungate , AdForum

Meat men: Jasper (left) and Bas


Occasionally a campaign transcends advertising to become headline news. That happened on a grand scale with “the mammoth meatball”, from Wunderman Thompson, which generated reams of media coverage when it was unveiled last month. It’s true that the concept was compelling: to demonstrate the possibilities of lab-grown meat, scientists created a hunk of mammoth meat from the DNA of the extinct woolly creatures.

The idea sprang from the minds of senior creative Jasper Korpershoek and global chief creative officer Bas Korsten – who has form when it comes to making headlines, as anybody who recalls “The Next Rembrandt” from 2016 will  attest. Ironically, the mammoth meatball landed in the midst of a sudden wave of concern about artificial intelligence.

But…mammoth meat. How on earth did that crop up in conversation? Jasper explains: “It was inspired by a couple of developments. A few years ago Mosa Meat here in the Netherlands produced the first lab-grown hamburger from cells. That was one thing. The other was genetic rescue, which uses genome editing to revive extinct creatures.” There’s been talk about resurrecting the passenger pigeon, for example, and even the dodo.

Splicing those two developments together started the five-year journey towards the mammoth meatball.



Leaping a genetic gap


Most lab-cultured meat pioneers weren’t interested in producing prehistoric flesh: their goal was to replace familiar fare like beef, pork or chicken. Enter Australian start-up Vow, which was excited by the prospect of growing exotic meats and became Wunderman’s partner on the project.

Bas says: “While one technology allows you to recreate the DNA of extinct species, the other starts with the cell of an animal. So there’s a missing gap between the two. And the gap is carrier cells.”

As scientists don’t have the full DNA of the woolly mammoth, the team at Vow and the University of Queensland used African elephant to complete the genome. Cells containing an abundance of mammoth information were isolated and grown in a bio-reactor until there were 20 billion of them.

If all this sounds familiar, you may not be surprised to learn that “Welcome to Jurassic Pork” was one of the headlines generated by the initiative. Jasper adds, “Before we got to the mammoth meatball, we thought about dodo nuggets or T-Rex T-bone steaks.”

There were a lot of obstacles along the way, not to mention late night and early morning video calls with Australian scientists, who had to explain everything to the laymen in metaphors. “They’d say: ‘It’s like a Mazda with a Toyota engine, but in the back’,” Bas recalls.

They also had to decide on the size of the resulting meatball. “In the end we used Jasper’s head as a rough guide.”

As the meatball would be transported from Australia for the live unveiling, test meatballs were created to see if they’d survive the journey – and the scrutiny of customs officials. It must have gone smoothly because they’re now languishing in Wunderman’s Amsterdam office. None too fragrantly, I’m told.


A media feeding frenzy


The unveiling was carefully orchestrated – by global PR lead Jessica Hartley – with The Guardian getting an exclusive and the meatball given VIP treatment at a revered Dutch science museum: the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. Once the news was out, it trampled its way across popular culture, firing the imaginations of journalists and the public. Despite zero media spend, the story has so far notched up the equivalent of 120 million dollars of advertising spend.

“It became a machine for generating funny headlines,” Jasper recalls. Bas adds: “One of the things we liked the most was the way normal people took the story and ran with it, creating memes and TikToks.”


"You shall go to the ball." Picture by Rob Harrison


The mammoth meatball was talked about in schools and at family dinners. Lab-grown meat had never been discussed so widely. Vow was delighted with the coverage because it shed light on a serious subject. Livestock has made a large contribution to climate change. Lab-cultured meat represents an alternative to slaughtering animals and a source of food for an overcrowded planet.

I wonder aloud how the meat and livestock lobby feel about all this. “I haven’t seen any negative reaction from the meat industry,” says Jasper. “We’re a long way from replacing meat, but this could exist alongside it.”

Bas adds: “For me the whole project confirms our belief that nature is no longer a limitation – the only limitation is our imagination. Which I know worries some people.”


Inspiration through innovation


He promises more “weird ideas” to come, however. “They’re important because we’re a creative agency, and creative confidence is an impalpable thing. If successful projects like this mean that one of our creatives can walk a little taller into a client meeting and say, ‘I believe in this idea, we should do it!’ – that’s invaluable for a company like ours.”

Meanwhile, a special travelling container has been commissioned for the meatball, which will go on tour. You may even catch a glimpse of it in Cannes.

In the longer term, Jasper says it’s opened his eyes to the possibilities of collaborating with experts in other spheres. “Scientists, space engineers, aeronautics developers – you name the profession and we could be working with them to generate totally unexpected ideas.”

Bas concludes: “This is what gets us fired up in the morning. We want to inspire our clients. If we’re going to do that, it’s important for us to be leading in places where no client has gone before.”