Marketing professor Peter Elenakis talks about his career and teaching methods
If you’ve ever taken one of Peter Elenakis’s marketing classes, you’ll probably agree that they aren’t like your typical John Molson School of Business course. Sure, his classes have lectures, assignments, exams—but they also contain something you wouldn’t expect from a business course: improv lessons.
For Elenakis, doing things differently helps students to get out of their comfort zones and see the business world in a different way. He said he brings in someone from Montreal Improv to work with the students in his MBA class once a semester, and it allows them to think more creatively.
“A bunch of these students are professionals and are used to a corporate environment and a certain way of doing things,” Elenakis said. “Doing the improv lesson allows them to accept other people’s ideas and also become better presenters.”
As Elenakis explained, presentations are a large part of the business world, which demands that students become expert presenters when pitching an idea. One of the methods Elenakis uses to make his students better at giving talks is to bar them from using PowerPoint.
“Surprisingly, the last few semesters that I’ve been doing this, the presentations without PowerPoint are better than the ones with PowerPoint,” Elenakis said. “I had one student sitting next to me say, ‘It’s not that good with the PowerPoint. We prefer without.’”
While teaching marketing courses at Marianopolis in Montreal before his time at Concordia, Elenakis noticed students were reluctant to present freely and express their ideas comfortably. At the time, Elenakis was doing improv at Second City in Toronto and noticed that improvising improved his presentation skills and his ability to think creatively. That’s when he decided to bring those skills to the classroom and taught his CEGEP students improv, before eventually bringing improv into his classes at Concordia.
Throughout his career, Elenakis has had other experiences with improv and acting. While working in the field on various marketing campaigns, Elenakis got to be in some TV commercials.
Elenakis said he was in a Rub A535 commercial and also got to play a bartender in a Johnnie Walker Whiskey ad. When asked about how he got to star in these commercials, Elenakis’s answer was simple: “We needed an extra and couldn’t afford anybody else.”
Elenakis’ presentation and improv skills aren’t the only tools he brings to the classroom. He also brings years of experience in business, which began all the way back in his college years, when he decided he wanted to go into advertising.
It was his love of pop culture and television shows like Bewitched that piqued his interest in the field and eventually led him to business school at McGill University.
“As I went to business school, I fell into marketing, and there was a lot of pop culture and entertainment associated with it, so I liked it,” Elenakis said.
After graduating, Elenakis took time off to travel, before looking for a job in advertising. He sent out 50 CVs and called up every company he sent one to. Instead of asking for a job, he asked if the companies had any insights they could give him about the business world.
These conversations led to interviews ,which, after a while, led him to his first job in the industry. Elenakis has worked in Montreal and Toronto at companies like J.W. Thompson, Leo Burnett, Taxi, Cossette and a small media company called Mediavation.
At the beginning of his career, Elenakis got to work on big projects with some of the world’s most recognizable brands. However, as he explained, he had more of a junior role when starting out.
“I was an assistant media planner, so my job was to get information and determine where they should be spending their money,” Elenakis said. “I was working with Kraft at the time, and I got to look at their budget and see where they could allocate funds.”
Two other big projects Elenakis worked on were with Kellogs and Nintendo. With Kellogs, he worked in the product development department. At the time, the company was trying to position itself in the world of breakfast cereal.
After doing some research, they realized people were no longer sitting down to eat a bowl of cereal in the morning, so they developed on-the-go cereal bars.
“Foods like bagels and muffins were increasing in sales, so we had to figure out how to make our product on-the-go,” Elenakis said. “That’s when we took our Special K cereal and put it into a bar format.”
With Nintendo, Elenakis was originally in charge of their games division and licenses. Before moving on from the company, Elenakis got to partake in the launch of the Nintendo 64 in 1996, a console people still play to this day.
He explained that the biggest challenge in launching the Nintendo 64 was the supply coming out of Japan. Nintendo considered Japan and the United States to be their two biggest markets, while Canada was their third-largest. This meant Elenakis and his colleagues needed to find a way to generate demand, but not too much, because there wouldn’t be enough supply to appease increased demand.
“At that point, Nintendo was the primary sponsor of the Much Music Video Awards, so we paired up with them and launched a promotional campaign,” Elenakis said. This generated the perfect amount of excitement, and the launch of the console went as planned.
Now, Elenakis focuses his attention on small to medium-sized businesses as a media consultant. These companies are typically looking for advice on how their brands should grow and what their message should be when advertising products.
As Elenakis explained, the big difference between working with large companies and small ones is budget restrictions. However, bigger budgets don’t always make the job easier.
“Bigger budgets mean you can do a lot more, but it also means the approval process takes a lot longer,” Elenakis explained. “With small companies, you have to be more resourceful, but things get done quicker because you’re dealing with the owner or president directly.”
While talking about what makes a successful marketing campaign, Elenakis explained that strong insights into a product and how it relates to the consumer’s needs and desires is a recipe for success. Elenakis cited “The Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign by Dos Equis as an example.
“That campaign functioned on a very simple insight,” he explained. “When guys go out to the bar, they want to seem interesting, otherwise the girl won’t talk to them.”
For Elenakis, the ad worked off a simple premise, but successfully communicated to their target demographic. This is what makes a marketing campaign work.
In addition to teaching and working with small businesses on the side, Elenakis is also involved with JMSB case competitions as a coach. These case competitions involve a group of business students who are given a situation, whether it’s about finance, marketing or administration, and they must come up with a solution. They then present their idea to a large group where they are judged against other schools.
In these competitions, the teams have about five hours to put together their 20-minute presentation. According to Elenakis, these case competitions are a great way for students to get practical experience.
“It teaches them how to solve a problem, come up with a creative solution, put together a presentation and then present it in front of the judges,” Elenakis said. “It’s a great skill set that they end up learning.”
As a part-time professor, one of the challenges he faces that full-time teachers don’t, is that he’s not always sure if he will be given a class to teach each semester. As he explained, there is no consistency, so it’s harder for him to make a schedule and plan around the courses he teaches. For instance, last fall semester, Elenakis wasn’t given a class.
Despite this hardship, Elenakis has never had a hard time getting what he wants or needs for a class.
“Anytime I ask people for stuff, I get it. There hasn’t been any hesitation, so I’d say it’s been pretty good,” he said.
While he didn’t get to teach this past semester, Elenakis enjoys his job as a professor and watching students grow and learn. As the years have gone on, he has seen students make the jump from the classroom to the professional world.
“One of the great things about teaching is seeing your students progress and going where they want to go,” Elenakis said. “I’ve seen students who wanted to get into advertising and investment and got into it and are now successful. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing that.”
Feature photo by Alexander Cole