C-Suite Challengers

“I’ll Have What They’re Having” – 3 Reasons Not To

Meg Ryan Billy Crystal

In a memorable scene from director Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally, written by Nora Ephron, we see Sally (Meg Ryan) and Harry (Bill Crystal) having a discussion about sex in a crowded deli restaurant. To prove a point, Sally fakes a vocally robust climax. If you’re not familiar with this film, do watch not only because the film is entertaining but mostly to see in that same scene the director’s mother, Estelle Reiner, another restaurant guest seated at a nearby table to Harry and Sally, say to the person taking her order, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

“I’ll Have What They’re Having” happens in marketing and advertising, too, only it’s not funny. 

When an advertising campaign is hugely successful, creative professionals often hear their clients say they literally want “what they did”–an identical or very similar approach to the campaign as the other brand. Undoubtedly the client’s thinking is, It worked for them so it will work for us.

Virtually every esteemed creative professional I know would argue against that reasoning. Here’s why.

  1. Grab Attention. Let’s start with a no-brainer. In a 24/7 connected world where people can tune in or tune out, to reach the right audience any advertising or marketing campaign needs to stand out. You can’t stand out when you’re distributing a similar campaign to one previously created. Your target audience likely will have seen the original one and either will not notice the difference, not notice at all or be confused as to which brand it is.
  2. Have Impact. Any relevant ad idea is based on insight into the audience’s behavior or thinking as it relates to the brand. You can’t impact people’s thinking or emotions if you’re borrowing a solution. And you certainly can’t call people to action if they don’t pay attention because they’ve seen the likes of it done before.
  3. Tell Your Own Story. Whether it’s a commercial brand or an organization’s message, the communication should be unique to the brand. Uniqueness can’t be faked. It certainly cannot be a dupe. As marketers and creatives, we have to learn to let go of the love for the one right answer. It’s stifling,” wrote Greg Hahn, chief creative officer of Mischief.

    Hahn says “the right answer.” I’ll dare to augment his wisdom by saying we have to let go of the one safe answer, as well. Because a creative solution worked for a different organization, brand, or individual, it doesn’t mean that’s the only solution that will work. Of course, we’re all somewhat risk averse. No one wants to lose their jobs because they went out on a creative limb. But the biggest risk is wasting time and money on any marketing, advertising, or branding that is dull.

Think of it this way, any great advertising idea needs to do three things to have impact:

  • Make the target audience take notice 
  • Keep their interest long enough to communicate the message
  • Call them to action

Being outrageous might call attention in a deli but in marketing and advertising, your solution has to be strategically creative, not simply creative. Strategic creativity entails finding an insight into your target audience so that the solution is fresh, relevant and will resonate with them. It means being compassionate and anticipating issues. It means putting your finger on a cultural moment, being authentic, and perhaps even surprising.

Reiner felt the movie needed to reveal a surprising truth about women that made men deeply uncomfortable,” notes Erin Carlson, a journalist and author of I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy. Ah, yes; an illusive “surprising truth” is what a stand-out ad campaign needs to reveal or hit, as well.

A current exhibit at the New-York Historical Society is titled “‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’: The Jewish Deli.” Still now, thirty-four years after the film premiered, its iconic phrase lives on. 

I’ll bet some movie studio executive wanted an award-winning, box office hit just like When Harry Met Sally. (In spite of introducing the antifeminist term “high maintenance” to describe the type of woman Sally portrays, I still appreciate the film.) To create a dupe of this rom-com would be ill-advised for very likely  it would not rise to the level of the original.

As a woman who wants it the way I want it, I would never go along with a client who wishes to “have what they’re having.”


Written by Robin Landa.
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Robin Landa
Robin Landa is a distinguished professor at Kean University and a globally recognized ideation expert. She is a well-known “creativity guru” and a best-selling author of books on creativity, design, and advertising. She has won numerous awards and The Carnegie Foundation counts her among the "Great Teachers of Our Time." She is the author of several books including The New Art of Ideas: Unlock Your Creative Potential.


Robin Landa is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.