Har insaan ke sunehri din hotay hain (everyone has their golden days) and for me they were when I started my career,” are the first words Mahmood Parekh, Chief Executive, MCM, says to me before I have even asked him anything. He is fully prepped for our interview, dressed in a black suit and white shirt, notes in hand and eager to talk about his 50 plus year journey in medical and consumer marketing.
Before we delve into his illustrious career history, a small tea is laid out before us, complete with a variety of patties and bakery biscuits. His demeanour can be best described as the right amount of warmth and professionalism, as he casually encourages me at different times during the interview to have more savouries and tea. I suspect he is Punjabi because when one Punjabi meets another, there is an automatic, informal vibe that takes over, but my suspicions are proved wrong as I am later informed that he comes from a Memon family.
After discussing the negative effects of the ongoing construction near MCM’s office and the horrid summer heat that awaits us, I discover that Parekh’s interest in advertising formed while he was in grade 12 and helping his grandfather win a local election.
“My grandfather wanted ideas for an electoral symbol and I thought of a horse (we were fond of horse riding in those days). The area from where he was contesting was massive and his campaign’s budget was limited, so I suggested distributing colour pencils and paper to the children and people in the area and whoever created the best horse would be given a prize and their drawing selected as the electoral symbol.” The idea turned out to be so popular that his grandfather garnered 80% of the area’s votes and Parekh meanwhile became more absorbed by the art of advertising and marketing.
After graduating with a BA in Arts from Islamia College, he went to the US and enrolled in marketing and advertising courses at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He was so impressed by the institution that he decided then and there that this was where he would send his children to study (which they did). He seems like one of those fathers who encourage their children to do their best, while respecting their personal choices and boundaries. This is true, as he says he is a proud father of three (two sons and a daughter), all of whom have different mindsets and ambitions. He continues speaking fondly of his children, as well as his daughter-in-law, telling me in detail about what each of them studied, went on to pursue and how impressed he is by them.
“My wife’s and my aim was to raise the children to be responsible and hardworking citizens of the world. When they first went to study abroad, we feared, as every parent does, about their safety and ke bigar na jayen. But they turned out to be pakkay Pakistani and pakkay Memon… apni rah se nahin hatay. Wherever they have gone they have performed at their best.”
As for Parekh himself, he started working at Polycon Advertising in 1962 and later joined Asiatic Advertising. Eventually, in 1970, he joined forces with friends to set up his own ad agency, Medical and Consumer Marketing Services (MCM). “We kept the name MCM because while I was in the US, I observed that advertising agencies catered to two segments: medical and consumer, and that the revenue from medical advertising was almost double that of consumer advertising. We thought, why not start something similar in Pakistan?”
Over time, MCM gained recognition in the medical advertising space and they even began to specialise in agriculture marketing. MCM was also affiliated with the British Medical Association and American Medical Association at one point, thereby taking advantage of these organisations’ research tools and “peer reviewed authentic reports” which proved beneficial for many of their pharmaceutical clients.
Establishing a credible and respected medical advertising agency in Pakistan was not easy. While consumer advertising provides for greater freedom in its expression, medical advertising is restricted by stringent rules about what can be said. “The World Health Organization, the Government of Pakistan and the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan have strict rules for medical advertising and if you make one mistake you can be fined or even imprisoned.”
He then pulls out a bound notebook and proudly reads through the list of various innovative marketing techniques MCM has introduced in Pakistan, via both medical and consumer marketing. The company introduced direct marketing, silent force marketing and novelty advertising in Pakistan, among many other techniques. Elaborating on silent marketing, he gives the example of whole wheat biscuits, explaining that these biscuits were not that appealing to consumers when they were first launched. Yet, MCM managed to make them market leaders by using indirect, silent force marketing. “Instead of saying ‘this is a biscuit, you should buy it’ we emphasised that ‘this is good for your heart, it helps you like a medicine.’ We motivated people to buy this biscuit and as a result, other companies started making similar biscuits.” He gives another example of how he and his team pulled off novelty advertising. “For a public service message for arthritis, we asked Sheema Kirmani who, despite her arthritis, continued to perform, to be the brand ambassador for an arthritis drug and encourage people not to let arthritis stop them from day-to-day functions.”
When I ask him what he considers to be his greatest achievement, he quickly says it was when Dow Chemical launched in Pakistan and hired MCM as ad consultants. After establishing a relationship, Dow Chemical offered MCM to make them their Pakistani partners. “They were creating a local plant and appointed me and two others as directors. I learned a lot about advertising, investing and management from this role. I believe it to be a big asset in my life. Even though the plant closed down in Pakistan, it gave me the confidence to run a growing business.”
We pause here as he offers me another hot cup of tea and further encourages me to eat more snacks. I end up eating a couple of buttery bakery biscuits.
In terms of his personal life, Parekh loves spending time with his family, working on public service projects, such as the United Memon Jamaat of Pakistan of which he is a trustee and vice president, eating out as it is “Karachi ki wahid tafree,” and more recently, going for walks with his wife.
Upon asking when and if Covid-19 vaccinations should be advertised, he says that although private vaccine sales have not started, MCM have connections with a number of pharmaceutical companies, but that it will take time to advertise the vaccine as “the companies themselves are not sure of the product yet.”
“Vaccine marketing is crucial and an area where community-level and direct marketing are important, and civic bodies and NGOs have a huge role to play rather than marketers. Covid-19 is not going anywhere; it is like the flu, malaria or pneumonia… it is an addition to your life.”