Barry Avrich

An agency president and chief operating officer who also directs? Avrich, 40, who does all three for Toronto-based Echo Advertising, knows a thing or two about multitasking. In the advertising business for nearly 20 years, Avrich has written two books on entertainment marketing, made four documentaries and says he’s working on a few feature-film ideas. His latest project, Guilty Pleasure: The Dominick Dunne Story, which he wrote and directed, debuts Wednesday on Court TV. Q: How did the documentary come about?

A: I’ve been a longtime follower/reader of Dominick Dunne. I’m always fascinated by people who have a sort of third act, who are able to go from zero to hero and then to zero again. I just woke up one day and said, “How do I get to meet Dominick Dunne?” The best way I could think of was making a film about him.

What advantages do you think you have, coming from an ad background?

My production timeline is way faster. I find I’m more disciplined because of that world of advertising. Some people tell me they’ve been working on documentaries for years. I came up with the idea in August last year and delivered the show by Christmas—and I’m already on the next two. And I take the same approach of making sure I have a very strong opening, great middle and a hell of an ending, and I pretty much have it edited in my brain before I go into postproduction. … I hired my own publicist aside from the network publicist to make sure the film is marketed. The artwork for the show has been created by me. … I learned a long time ago there are great rewards in blending art and commerce. And if you understand that recipe, then you’re going to be successful.

Do you want to eventually make a feature?

Sure. Jerry Bruckheimer’s interesting for me, because this is a guy who came from advertising, as a lot of film guys did. But he completely understands business and marketing and promotional tie-ins, and the overall selling and formula of how to make a film that works.

What inspired you to get into advertising?

Being creative is what inspired me. I was reading Variety at age 8 and making short films at 15. I got into the advertising end because an uncle of mine said, “If you’re going to get into film, there’s going to be years of hunger. Why don’t you get into advertising, where there’s a steady paycheck, and do both?” And the minute I got into advertising I loved it. I started my first day at this small agency. The owner was away, and I had to not only write and direct a radio spot for A Chorus Line coming to Toronto, I had to figure out a way to buy the media, because there were no media buyers there.

So you were always creative—but now you’re on the business side?

A lot of the major agencies, you have a role, and if you are an account guy, you’re not a creative guy, and if you’re a creative guy, you’re not an account guy. And I could never live in that world. We’re 130 people in our Toronto office, and we’re happy to get great creative ideas wherever they come from, whether it’s the creative department or the receptionist.

Who most influenced your career?

Saul Bass. He was a legendary graphics designer. He was a great influence in terms of visual thinking and simplicity in creativity. I interviewed him for my book Event and Entertainment Marketing. He told me he stopped designing posters for the studios because it became decision by committee. When he designed, he brought a napkin to Hitchcock and showed him the sketch, and Hitchcock said go or no.

How do you juggle all your duties?

I sleep four hours a night. I always have. When my advertising day finishes, my filmmaking day begins. I’m constantly working. I conduct interviews during time I take off plus the weekends. I schedule shoots for weekends and holidays.

What’s the difference between advertising in Canada and the U.S.?

Canada operates a little differently from a patriotic level. In the States, everything is wrapped in the flag. Overall, Canada—I’ll be shot for this—in a lot of ways, it is America light.

What ad campaign is overrated?

Most of the car commercials in the U.S., to me, are overrated. I’ll give you one specifically that I have a huge problem with: Jaguar. This is a car and a company that has tried to go after a younger demographic and has failed. Ford owns it now, and it looks like a Ford, sounds like a Ford and feels like a Ford, and they have not been successful whatsoever in associating … with something cool. Its marketing is bland.

What’s the most disappointing creative trend you’re seeing?

I don’t see a lot of daring work. One trend that worries me is product placement. I find we’re quickly skidding into an overkill, and that panics me. There’s word of going back to having major packaged-goods companies own television shows and sponsor them. I think the public is tremendously savvy, and once they’re exposed to an oversell, it doesn’t work. I’m excited by it, and I’m also scared by it.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Find a mentor quickly. Don’t blend in—the key is to be different and have an opinion and find interesting ways to communicate your vision.

How do you get past a creative block?

I will jump into a great biography. I like to read people’s life stories and find out how they dealt with challenges. That seems to unlock doors.

You’re known as a practical joker. What’s your best joke?

I’m king of the phone prank. I’m a man of a thousand voices. It’s always a great challenge to fool people. I do them in volume. I remember, early on, I called a bakery to order a birthday cake, and I gave them about 300 words to put on the cake. Kept going and going.