Raf Rivilla was born and raised in San Francisco, California, but today he calls Cleveland, Ohio, his home. While working at an advertising agency in San Francisco, Raf received a strange call from a job recruiter initially posing as a media vendor from weather.com. Midway through the conversation, Raf realized the man wasn’t selling a product, but rather selling Raf on a job that would ultimately take him thousands of miles away from his hometown.
His father had recently died, and Raf took the call as a sign to make a new start and relocate his life to Atlanta. He and partner Jon Oberman lived there for eight years while Raf worked as digital director at an agency. Missing the connection to family, the couple decided to move back to one of their hometowns. Since Jon’s hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, was much more affordable than San Francisco, the couple made the move to the North Coast.
Raf instantly fell in love with Cleveland, a far cry from Atlanta. While Atlanta was a big city dominated by global corporations and holding-company agencies, Cleveland was a city with grit, character and soul, born of the Rust Belt and its meltingpot culture.
Agencies in Cleveland are independent and entrepreneurial. Raf fell in love with the thriving food and beer scene in Cleveland and the people who took pride in and ownership of their city.
When Raf accepted the job as VP media director at Marcus Thomas, he quickly realized the agency culture was a reflection of everything he loved about his new home. “People here are more competitive,” he says. “They have more invested in everything they do because we don’t work for an agency that just wins, we work for everything we have and take nothing for granted.”
At Marcus Thomas, work is also driven by the idea that as innovators we should leave things better than how we found them, an idea that’s fundamental to how Raf lives his life.
Raf is not only a partner at Marcus Thomas and a thought leader behind the new media initiative Media Unleashed, he’s also the new owner of a bar in Cleveland’s historic Tremont neighborhood. The Rowley Inn is Raf’s and husband Jon’s latest endeavor. Built in 1906, the bar is a neighborhood place, with odd hours to accommodate the swing shifts of nearby steel mills. Its location is also noteworthy: The Rowley Inn is across the street from the “A Christmas Story” house, famous for its role as the TV home of Ralphie Parker in the 1983 film.
Raf and his partner plan to keep the heritage and feel of the Rowley Inn alive for years to come, but also want to leave it a little better than they found it. They’ve already undertaken some simple renovations, but intend to maintain the Tremont treasure in a way that will create a story worth telling for years to come.
In recent months the tagline “Nothing is given, everything is earned,” made famous by LeBron James, has been adopted by Raf and many other Clevelanders. The Rowley Inn is a dream of Raf’s and Jon’s, clearly earned after lots of blood, sweat and tears.