Irreconcilable differences.

It sounds like the basis for a plot on "thirtysomething." But it has become the favorite phrase at KSK Communications Ltd. -- the Tysons Corner-based advertising and public relations firm -- to describe the split between the firm's top executives.

On May 31, after almost seven years as the second in command at KSK, Carole M. Bowns was asked to leave the agency, effective immediately. According to founder and President Karen S. Kennedy, who made the decision to terminate Bowns's relationship with the agency, the differences that cropped up between them were posing real problems.

"I think it could best be described as some sort of a power struggle, in which it became clear that one of the two of us was going to remain with the agency," Kennedy said.

"I don't want this to come across as some sort of scandalous thing -- this happens in businesses," she said. "I'm the majority shareholder, and therefore it became a decision that I had to make."

KSK has nearly 40 employees and does most of its work for local high-technology companies that advertise in trade journals. The company has annual sales of about $25 million and counts among its clients Group 1 Software of Greenbelt, Computer Data Systems Inc. of Rockville, Contel Telephone Systems of Chantilly and Bell Atlantic Corp. of Philadelphia, Kennedy said.

Kennedy, 47, and Bowns, 51, had been longtime friends when Bowns joined the firm as executive vice president just a few months after it was founded in 1983. Their partnership worked well until a couple of years ago when the two began to disagree on a variety of small issues. Bowns was primarily responsible for the company's accounts and their management, while Kennedy concentrated on new business and managing the creative department, Kennedy said.

"I don't think any one thing happened -- it's a build-up of a lot of things," Kennedy said. "It was not like I wanted it green and she wanted it red. Numerous small things just started adding up."

Bowns concedes that she and Kennedy did have "irreconcilable differences," and could not agree on many minor issues, but toward the end, she said, the differences of opinion were becoming more and more philosophical.

"This was not what you'd call friendly," she said. "I really don't think we're talking about little things. It was big things, too."

Bowns's departure from KSK was sudden. Since she was "terminated without cause" about two weeks ago, she said, she has neither gone to the office nor spoken with anyone from the agency. She and Kennedy had talked before the breakup about ways to solve their problems, but "the way it was handled was a surprise," Bowns said.

Bowns would not be specific about her relationship with Kennedy and the advertising firm, she said, because many issues have not been settled, such as what will be done with her 30 percent stake in the business.

"There are lawyers involved in this," she said. "I can't really comment on much."

Bowns did say, however, that she is not filing suit against Kennedy or the firm.

Exactly what precipitated the surprise split between KSK's top executives -- women described by several employees as "strong-willed" -- is not clear from either account. What is obvious is that the split has had a major impact on both women and on the agency, though there are no early indications of client defections.

"I think that when people spend some portion of their energies arguing with each other, that diverts energy from ... fighting with the competition," Kennedy said. "Everyone is concentrating on the same thing -- the business -- now that there are no internal struggles."

While Kennedy said she does not expect to lose clients because of Bowns's termination, other advertising firms have lost clients after key employees departed. Kennedy said that since Bowns left, the agency has won four new accounts. "Very honestly, things have been very pleasant in the last two weeks," she said.

"Everyone knew that something would have to happen to clear the air -- it almost made people want it to get to a climax," said Chris Plumer, associate creative director and vice president of KSK.

"No one expected Karen to do what she did. I was shocked -- a lot of people were shocked. It's really been tough in a personal sense," Plumer said. "But everyone is relieved. Not that Carole is gone, but that the tension has been relieved."

Bowns, who has spent the last two weeks "relaxing and mowing the lawn" at her six-acre home in Sandy Springs, said she has not yet decided what she will do next. But she said she plans to stay in the advertising industry.

"I don't plan to take a lot of time off. In this business, if you do, they forget you," she said. "I have many strong alliances and I don't want to let them go ... I'm really looking forward to the future."