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Student Life

From the world of advertising to the classroom

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.

Graphic by Alexa Hawksworth

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.

Elenakis helps coach JMSB students for case competitions. Photo courtesy of Peter Elenakis

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

Categories
Arts

A time to talk about dance

Part-time faculty member Philip Szporer breaks down contemporary dance

After a few years of performing with a dance company, Philip Szporer realized he did not want to dance—instead, he wanted to talk about what was going on in the world of contemporary dance.

Over 35 years later, Szporer, now a part-time faculty member at Concordia, hasn’t run out of topics to feed his passion for dance. He hasn’t even run out of inspiration—he’s excited about his upcoming project—a film collaboration, which took him to India during Concordia’s reading week. The film, with Shantala Shivalingappa, who performs the southern Indian classical dance style of kuchipudi, has been in the works for three years. The 10-minute dance film will capture Shivalingappa as she dances in this classical form. Szporer beamed when he said the project will be filmed in Hampi, India, a cherished place for Shivalingappa and a new location for him.

“It’s going to be fascinating. [Shivalingappa]’s a marvelous artist,” Szporer said. One of the first times Szporer worked with her was when he was a scholar in-residence at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the U.S. After getting to know her form of dance and witnessing a part of her production, Szporer said to himself: “That could be an amazing film.”

Filming and producing dance films and documentaries is not new to Szporer. In 2001, he and his friend Marlene Millar co-founded the arts film production company Mouvement Perpétuel. The pair’s work ranges from 3D films showing human struggles using contemporary dance in Lost Action: Trace to Leaning On A Horse Asking For Directions, which incorporates BaGuaZhang martial arts and contemporary dance choreography to evoke empathy by watching how performers move and interact with one another.

Choreographer Crystal Pite and dancers Jermaine Spivey (front), Peter Chu, Anne Plamondon, Yannick Matthon and Eric Beauchesne (back, from left to right) rehearse on the set of Lost Action: Trace. (Photo by Anthony McLean. Courtesy of Philip Szporer.)

“We were interested in uncovering the landscape of the body,” Szporer said, regarding the way he and Millar go about filming their work. Their process begins with knowing the choreography to anticipate where the body will be in the space, and further convey a message in the captured movement. Szporer doesn’t describe filming a dance performance as formulaic, but there’s definitely emphasis on the “expressive quality the body can have” in stillness and in motion.

Before Szporer and Millar created Mouvement Perpétuel, they were Pew fellows at University of California in Los Angeles. “This allowed us to go deeply into the area of dance film,” Szporer said. Working with professionals in L.A. and being mentored by professionals from other countries was a great, immersive experience for Szporer. “It was great to be … in this academic environment,” he said. “It allowed us to question ‘how do we want to make films?’ And ‘what kind of films do we want to make?’”

Once Szporer returned to Montreal in the 90s, the pieces fell into place—he and Millar knew how to convey a story through a dance film, and networks in Canada like Bravo! were supporting short-form arts films. The crucial components—the skillset to make quality productions and the demand for dance films— were put in place for Szporer and Millar to build up their production company to what it is today, taking on international collaborations and local projects alike.

Philip Szporer and Marlene Millar, co-founders of Mouvement Perpétuel on the set of their film, Lost Action: Trace. (Photo by Anthony McLean. Courtesy of Philip Szporer.)

Early in his career as a dance commentator and filmmaker, Szporer never had to look too far from the city for fascinating shows and movements. The Montreal dance scene in the 80s was flourishing with local homegrown talent and material.

“Many people were starting out [in Montreal]: the Édouard Locks, the Ginette Laurins, the Marie Chouinards, … I was interested in what they were doing,” Szporer said. In addition to witnessing the then up-and-comers of the dance community, Szporer was intrigued by viewing people’s work in a unique, untraditional way. “You could go to performances in people’s lofts, you could see them in galleries,” he said. “It was inspiring to be in the midst of all that.”

Later, the larger, more well-known post-modern artists “migrated north,” to use Szporer’s words, from New York City. The post-modernists brought a different flair to Montreal’s existing arts scene. Szporer sums up the time perfectly: “You knew you were seeing something key to the development of the form.” Montreal was evolving into a dance hub, with external influences shaping the larger arts scene and homegrown talent creating an established dance community within the city.

Szporer also ventured into an area many dancers shy away from: talking and writing about dance to the general public. He never accepted the assumption that dancers and choreographers can only express themselves physically through movement.

“I am totally of the mind that there are a lot of [dancers] who are extraordinarily able to express themselves with words,” Szporer said. “I believe dancers and choreographers have something to share with people.” Words, especially those describing dance, captivated Szporer.

After working a few odd jobs, including as a “singing telegram,” he started working as a dance columnist on CBC radio during the 80s. This gig allowed Szporer to show listeners dance could be articulated in non-visual ways. “The big thing … you are speaking to many different kinds of people who are not necessarily understanding what you’re talking about, so you have to make it understandable and not sensationalize it,” he said. The radio dance column, alongside writing for other publications like Concordia’s own former newspaper, Thursday Report, plunged Szporer further into Montreal’s dance community.

Philip Szporer enjoys encouraging students to talk about different perceptions of dance . Photo by Ana Hernandez.

He still writes for several dance publications, like The Dance Current and Dance Magazine, where he reviews performances and breaks down Montreal’s evolving dance scene by detailing new studio openings, as well as chronicling the city’s dance trends past and present.

These skills, along with his undisputed passion for dance, come in handy as a part-time professor at Concordia. Unlike other faculty members, Szporer teaches four courses between two different faculties. He teaches Dance Traditions and Dancing Bodies in Popular Culture within the Faculty of Fine Arts, and teaches two classes at the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability.

“[Teaching] wasn’t something I sought out to do—it came to me,” Szporer said as he remembered being approached in 2002 by Concordia’s contemporary dance department to teach the Dance Traditions course.

Although Szporer jokes about his teaching skills improving over the years, one can’t help but think he’s being modest. His newest class, Dancing Bodies in Popular Culture, which is available to non-fine arts students, is an embodiment of what Szporer has built his career on—talking about dance.

The Culture and Communication course he teaches at the Loyola College for Diversity and Sustainability continues to foster Szporer’s passion of introducing and articulating arts and performances—this time in ways that are “grounded in ideas about the environment and ecology … and general notions of diversity.”

Ideas of diversity struck a chord with Szporer. “Diversity is so fundamental,” he said. “We all have to get on board with developing language surrounding these ideas.” He was thrilled when he was offered another course, which he decided to turn into into a film course: The Future in Film: Ecocide and Dystopias.

CRU (SoulStep), an episode of a series on urban dance, directed and produced by Philip Szporer and Marlene Millar, will air on Télé-Québec’s Fabrique culturelle. (Photo by Jules de Niverville. Courtesy of Philip Szporer.)

In class, Szporer stands away from the podium, centred in front of the large screen behind him, and turns the class into an active discussion where everyone can comment and reflect on elements of dance. Last week’s contentious question: Is striptease considered dance? “The dialogue that happens within the class is fascinating because it’s … a different kind of conversation that begins [when] people ask different questions from within the [dance] profession and without,” he explained.

Perhaps that’s the most enjoyable part of teaching at Concordia for Szporer—the notion of putting forth an idea and being met with positivity and encouragement on the other end. It’s liberating and motivating to be at an institution where there’s always room to grow, he said. Szporer especially enjoys being able to teach students from varied disciplines to be “comfortable with knowing that you are in a big world with lots of richness you can learn from.”

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