Barry Avrich: Don’t blend in

Things have changed a lot at Ryerson since Barry Avrich was a student. Back then, he says, the school wasn’t a university yet, and he was about 100 pounds heavier. But the advice his father gave him all those years ago is something he still preaches to students today: Don’t blend in.

Courtesy of LinkedIn

Barry Avrich (Courtesy of LinkedIn)

Avrich joined Ryerson students at the Law, Business, Politics — The Real World speaker series on March 18.

“We have a real superstar here in Avrich. He has had an extraordinary career,” said Ralph Lean, a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University.

Over the last three decades, Avrich has built a name for himself as a filmmaker and marketing expert. He has built campaigns for the Rolling Stones, American Express, and most recently, John Tory’s mayoral campaign.

As a filmmaker he has documented the lives of Bob Guccione, Harvey Weinstein and Garth Drabinsky.

Avrich told students that when he came to Ryerson it was much tougher than it is now. It was still a polytechnical institute, and wasn’t as well known as it is today.

“My parents said, ‘you’re going to an institute? What is that? Is there no other university that will take you?’” said Avrich. “It was a tough school, in that it didn’t have a brand the way it does today; it was not a university.”

As Avrich was preparing to come to Toronto from Montreal, his father gave him a some words of advice: be different.

His father told him to find a way to make himself known in the city and to establish his own brand.

The other piece of advice that Avrich’s father told him was to take time to tell great stories in every part of his life and career, “because everyone loves a great storyteller.”

Avrich says he didn’t really understand what his father meant back then, but he figured it out over the course of his studies. Avrich developed a “rent a fan club” service, which hired out fellow students to act as one person’s fan club for a day. The venture eventually led him to a deal with McDonald’s Canada founder George Cohon.

Cohon fell in love with the idea and hired a fan club for McDonald’s executives for two full days.

In return he wrote Avrich a cheque and gave him a box of 500 business cards.

Avrich says he found himself wondering, “what do I need 500 business cards for?”

His questions were answered when he flipped over the cards and saw they were also coupons for a free Big Mac and large fries.

“That year was my ‘Super-Size Me’ year,” said Avrich. “I probably gained about 100 pounds.”

Before opening the floor for questions, Avrich finished by reiterating his father’s advice.

“It is just such a great recipe,” said Avrich.

“You can become the background or the foreground. You have to find a way to be noticed.”

The next discussion in this series will be with Mayor John Tory on March 26.

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