13 June 2018

Portrait: Sasha Markova of Impossible Foods

Sasha Markova of Los Angeles-based Impossible Foods wants to eliminate the beef burger with meat made of plants.


One day in the not-so-distant future, there’ll be a new kind of children’s book. The story will go like this: a young protagonist wants to know how hamburgers (still a ubiquitous food) are made. She’ll ask everyone, from her parents to a herd of cows. No one will be able to say for sure; the cows, in fact, are offended at the suggestion it could be from them.

The story ends with the child flopping onto the grass in frustration. The last line is a whisper. ‘Psst,’ a blade of grass says. ‘Burgers come from us.’

That storyteller is Sasha Markova, executive creative director at plant-based meat brand Impossible Foods.

Hamburgers: the social leveller

Since 2011, Los Angeles-based Impossible Foods has been working to cut meat out of the supply chain entirely – something it reckons can be done by 2035. Its first target for elimination is the beef burger.

Whether it’s a premium, barbecue-sauce-slathered patty or something more humble from McDonald’s, most people have a soft spot for burgers. Instead of using ground beef (a significant driver of the £3.6tn global agriculture industry), Impossible’s patty is made from potato protein, coconut oil and heme – the naturally occurring compound that makes meat taste like meat. Impossible’s recipe uses heme extracted from soy to replicate the taste of flesh. Even though it relies heavily on this water-guzzling crop, the company says its product is far better for the planet than producing cow-derived meats.

So far, it’s raised over £288m in funding and its flagship Impossible Burgers are in restaurants across the US and Hong Kong. Alongside rumours of a move into the grocery aisle, it’s working on opening a manufacturing site in Asia, and adding more ‘meats’, including fish, chicken and pork, to its range.

Cooked and sliced open, Impossible Burgers have the same pinkish tone of rare beef. They even bleed. It’s miles away from a Quorn patty, but for most meat eaters it’s still a ‘vegan burger’.

Since joining the company in January, Markova’s job has been to figure out how to convince carnivores that Impossible is giving them something they actually want: meat. It might not come from a cow, but Impossible says it’s close enough to the real thing.

Challenging the status quo is unlikely to faze Markova: she’s known for her eccentric creative strategies. Back when Impossible’s founder Pat Brown was trying to figure out how to extract heme from soybeans in an LA lab, Markova was pushing boundaries at Mother, the UK’s biggest independent ad agency. She wrote slogans and crafted concepts for brand-defining Boots and Stella Artois TV campaigns, and worked on more fantastical projects, too: inviting telepaths to pitches with multinational clients and getting psychics in to hawk t-shirts with people’s fortunes printed on to raise money for charity.

She was green to the world of advertising when she joined, says Mark Waites, Mother’s founder and Markova’s former boss. But she quickly learned the mechanics and in turn challenged the agency with her off-the-wall ideas. ‘One of the reasons she stayed so long is that she found a home of like-minded individuals,’ says Waites. ‘We would back her flights of fancy.’

In 2015, she was seconded to LA to work with some of the most significant brands of our time – including Uber and Facebook. But despite promises from Silicon Valley firms to create a better world using tech, it soon became obvious they were reverting to the business default of putting profits before principles. The ethical trade-off for being able to bring her outlandish ideas to life became too much and, in May 2017, she left Mother.

Modern storytelling

Markova’s idiosyncratic methods have found fertile ground at Impossible. Recently, she’s been digging into the idea that people can speak to plants. It came up when chatting to the owner of her local cactus shop, who said that plants were conscripting humans to help save the planet. She invited a speaker to host a plant ceremony at Impossible’s office. ‘She said the only reason the world will survive is [due to] the intelligence of plants and funghi,’ Markova recalls. ‘That’s the most sophisticated intelligence in the world right now.’

Whether or not she believes these far-out theories is almost beside the point. It’s a way to encourage colleagues to enter new creative realms and find compelling ways to tell brand stories.

‘Creativity is very intuitive and it’s very emotional,’ she says. ‘I need to break down this idea that another world can exist. [When you] play with psychics, you’re breaking down the wall into another way of thinking.’

Tech bros and eco warriors

In the eight months between leaving Mother and joining Impossible, Markova did some pro-bono campaigning to protect the US wild horse population’s land. (Naturally, she employed an animal telepath to communicate with the horses.) After giving the horses their own glossy campaign – and having little impact – Markova recalls desperately wanting to find a company committed to benefitting the environment and with the cash to actually make a difference.

At the same time, Giselle Guerrero, Impossible’s creative director, was searching for a writer and creative partner. The writers who had previously done stints at Impossible were stuck in one of two LA tropes: the Silicon Valley bro or the eco-hippy. ‘Sasha just brought the sweetness and relatable tone to it,’ Guerrero says. ‘It was night and day from anybody I’d worked with before.’ Markova’s freelance shifts soon turned into a job offer. ‘She probably thought it was a month’s [work],’ Guerrero says. ‘But we were keeping her.’

Despite her experience, Markova is nothing like the stereotypical bolshy advertising executive. She rejects the idea that it’s her job to write straplines that ‘give meaningless things meaning,’ and is a genuine believer in Impossible’s mission to remove animals from the food chain by 2035.

It’s clear in the dreamy way she talks about the product: she is convincing because of her genuine and infectious belief. On stage at April’s D&AD conference, a major event for London creatives, after Markova described Impossible’s vision for a meat-free future, the host stood up and announced that she was ready to be part of this new, plant-based world, too.

The anti-ad agency

Impossible, she explains, is part of a big societal shift. It’s from another world, where burgers are no longer made from cows and creative teams no longer pull all-nighters in a bid to sell acne creams. ‘[It’s] a world that’s much nicer than this one,’ she adds.

Alongside Guerrero, Markova is building an in-house creative team at Impossible with a different mindset to high-pressure agencies like BBH or Omnicom. ‘Sasha and I have for sure been burned in that world,’ Guerrero says. ‘Sometimes you don’t think there’s another choice. The agencies give us jobs. But then you find something like Impossible.’

Markova and her colleagues currently work in the Downtown Arts District, around the corner from LA’s adland. The office environment is more collaborative than the average ad agency. There’s no concern with winning industry accolades and the team hierarchy is relatively flat. Quality of work is emphasised over quantity, and the atmosphere is purposefully low-stress: there are no emotional ups and downs, no creative directors throwing chairs and no bosses coming in at the eleventh hour tearing up ideas that took all night to come up with.

Markova hosts brainstorming sessions at her home in Echo Park, and once big projects are completed, staff are encouraged to spend time away from the office – at museums, on walks, whatever it takes to get them back into the world and feel its pulse.

‘At that nervous point when you’re about to hit send, she will calm your nerves and she makes you feel great about yourself. It’s part of her charm and make her a great leader, a great part of a team. Everyone else just gets sucked along by her energy,’ Mother’s Waites says. ‘Companies have the DNA of the people who start them, and that office will be created in her image.’

‘She’s inspired people to be more creative, be more fun and not take themselves so seriously,’ Guerrero adds. ‘There’s zero tolerance for egos.’

At the end of June, Markova’s first major advertising campaign for Impossible will drop, across film and social media platforms. She is tight-lipped on what it will look like. But she does say she’s been toying with ways to incorporate talking plants into the script. ‘“I’m sick of being a fern in a waiting room, I can do more. I want to be a burger”,’ she says, imitating a pot plant.

She pauses, and then – no longer playing the role of pot plant – asks something really simple, but very effective. ‘Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be, but people have told you it’s impossible?’

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