In the final months of last year’s presidential election campaign, the attic in the offices of Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications had housed a close-knit, crowded “Hub” with the goal of delivering the Jewish vote to President Barack Obama.
About a year later, there is suddenly plenty of space in the firm’s Woodley Park offices.
Last Thursday, Matt Dorf informed his mentor and business partner Steve Rabinowitz that he was moving on to start a new firm called West End Strategy Team. By the time the news was released by the two now former partners, West End Strategy Team had a logo, six former Rabinowitz/Dorf employees, office space and a www.westendstrategy.com website.
Dorf’s decision to split came as a “shock,” admitted Rabinowitz. The two men had worked together for 13 years.
“The firm is breaking up and we’ll be working apart from each other going forward,” the pair wrote to clients and friends. “Matt is leaving to start his own business, West End Strategy Team, a strategic communications firm that raises public awareness, influences policy and drives social change, while Steve is returning to Rabinowitz Communications, the messaging, marketing and media firm he started nearly 20 years ago. It’s been a great run, and we’ve been very fortunate to count you among our inner circle. Thank you.”
Rabinowitz Communications was founded by Steve Rabinowitz in 1994. Prior to the partnership, the firm was called Rabinowitz Media Strategies.
Rabinowitz, 56, told WJW that he wasn’t prepared for the announcement which came last Thursday morning at 11:30.
There were many accounts that were created and managed by each partner, so that was the easier part of the breakup. There are accounts, however, that will require discussion and negotiation.
Dorf, 43, said that he and his former business partner had a “tremendous run,” and could count many successes. Dorf is an experienced journalist, former Washington bureau chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and director of public affairs for the American Jewish Congress. In the latter position, he ran the organization’s Washington office. Both men were listed as one of the 50 most influential Jews by The Forward newspaper.
Dorf joined Rabinowitz Media Strategies as the managing partner in August 2000. The firm changed its name to Rabinowitz/Dorf two years later.
The firm would go on to add Dorf’s name and he would become a 50-50 partner with Rabinowitz.
“There were clients that are clearly Matt’s,” said Rabinowitz. “He brought them to the firm and he served them. And there are clients I work with. Unfortunately, there are some in the middle of both of us, and it’s awkward for them.”
Awkward could be the best way to describe the feelings over the breakup, according to a source with close knowledge of the firm.
“Steve was the founder of the firm,” said the source. “He hired Matt and mentored him showing him the ways of the PR world. Clearly Matt decided he wanted to do something new. I think Steve has been a mensch throughout this process. I think Steve, though, is in shock that his longtime partner would leave him to start his own firm. Matt learned a lot of PR skills from Steve, including putting a positive light on a negative story, but this was not an amiable breakup.”
“The hub in the attic of our office existed to support the president’s re-election in the Jewish community,” said Rabinowitz. “We did a lot of great work, a lot of great interfaith work. We worked across various faith communities.”
Dorf said that among his goals is to help his clients not only get “great media placement.”
But even placement, he said isn’t where the story ends. “It’s not enough to secure placement. It’s about the next step. We will be taking their causes and issues and helping our clients effect change, helping them with the needed advocacy to effect that change. Media strategy is much more complex now.”
The source, who requested anonymity, continued that “whatever one thinks of Steve, you know he’s going to be delivering for you when he’s on your side. One of the great things about Steve’s firm is that they only accept clients they agree with. When you are in a PR battle, there’s no one you’d rather have than Steve. His decades of experience his time in the [Clinton] White House and as head of the pre-eminent and most progressive Jewish PR firm in America, Steve was like that before Matt got there, and he’ll be like that now. But there’s no question Steve was shocked by Matt leaving. I don’t think Matt would refute that. It was entirely unexpected. The firm was doing well from all outside indicators, so this was entirely unexpected. But Matt clearly just wanted more.”
Rabinowitz told WJW that he was proud of the level of work Rabinowitz/Dorf accomplished and acknowledged that the Jewish Democrat Hub happening in his attic was clearly one of the firm’s high points.
Brianne Nadeau came to Rabinowitz/Dorf a year and a half ago. She was a senior associate before the breakup. Now she’s vice president of Rabinowitz Communications.
The breakup was explained to the staff on Thursday at an impromptu staff meeting. Decisions about whether to stay at Rabinowitz or move with Dorf were made in private discussions, she said.
“It all happened very fast,” said Nadeau. “For the outside world it was business as usual to make sure our clients wouldn’t be impacted. Steve reassured us that our jobs were not at risk. At first I thought they were going to tell us we were being acquired. We were told though that we were splitting up. It’s going to be a slightly different focus. We were all in shock, there were tears.”
Nadeau said the biggest impact is sorting out the professional from the personal.
“I’ll miss coming to work with all of my friends. Rabinowitz/Dorf was special because we were a family. When you work in a place that feels like family, you forget you are running a business, and at the end of the day it was a business decision. I can hardly complain. I’ve been made a VP, but I’ll miss coming to work every day with all of my friends.”
One of those colleagues and friends was Ari Geller, who left to become a principal at West End. He was a five-year employee at Rabinowitz/Dorf.
He was actually a client of the firm that hired Rabinowitz/Dorf to work with the Interfaith Alliance.
“I respected the type of firm they were running,” he said. “Working with the Jewish community was a great thing for me. And working with Steve … he is a force of nature. He’s a person you can learn so much from.”
Geller said that when he learned of the split, he felt the best personal fit was with West End Strategy.
“I think Steve will do great things. In terms of West End, we will continue our commitment to working with causes, creating positive social change.”
There are still accounts to settle for both former partners. It was those accounts they shared that could become points of contention.
“Matt had clients that were clearly his, and I have clients that are clearly mine,” said Rabinowitz. “The people I feel for are the clients we both worked on and now may have to choose sides.”
The source, however, close to the company said that “as long as things don’t get nasty, time will heal some wounds. When you announce, like in divorce, you are taking children away [in this case employees and possibly accounts], you have to remember it’s a business. But it still sucks.”
According to a statement by Dorf, West End Strategy Team “partners with its clients to leverage targeted exposure to boost their advocacy, fundraising and membership.”
According to a statement by Rabinowitz, his company “specializes in progressive public and foreign policy initiatives, domestic American politics and ethnic and religious affairs. Rabinowitz Communications serves clients seeking expert, timely and effective services in the entire strategic communications field.”
“For me, this is more a case of hitting the refresh button than having to totally reboot,” says Rabinowitz. “Everyone knows who I am. I’m not starting over; just moving forward.”