Meet the 20 Rising Brand Stars Who Are Bringing Global Attention to Atlanta

From Delta and Coca-Cola to doughnuts and craft beer

Photo Illustration: Yuliya Kim; Sources: Getty Images, Haigwood Studios

Atlanta has long been home to iconic brands like Coca-Cola, but the city’s roster of highly admired companies continues to evolve rapidly—as does the talent driving them forward.

Today, Atlanta is becoming known not only for its global powerhouse corporations, but also for its vibrant, tech-driven startups like MailChimp and booming regional brands like SweetWater Brewing.

Their businesses may be well known, but the same isn’t always true of the people driving this success. So Adweek’s editors have selected 20 of the rising brand stars who are energizing and elevating Atlanta. Check them all out below:

Brynn Bardacke, VP North America Content & Creative Excellence, Coca-Cola

Brynn Bardacke flies under the radar publicly, but within the walls of Coca-Cola, she’s a star. She’s known for her phenomenal leadership ability and creative mind as vp, North America content and creative excellence at the beverage giant.

Bardacke oversees the development of ads for all of Coca-Cola's brands, including Sprite, Diet Coke, Powerade, Smartwater, Vitaminwater, Simply, Minute Maid and Odwalla. If such a portfolio weren’t already daunting enough, she said she’s keenly aware of what it means to hold the reputation of a legacy brand in your hands.

Pharmacist John Stith Pemberton invented the bubbly concoction that started it all in Columbus, Ga., in 1886. The brand headquartered its operations in Atlanta—where it operates The World of Coca-Cola museum—and has since created some of the nation's most iconic ads, from 1931's Santa to 1971's "Hilltop" to 2014's "Share a Coke."

"It is a privilege to work at an Atlanta-based company that has inspired both local and global marketing communities for over a century," she said. "A trip to the company’s archives is a reminder of the opportunity—and responsibility—to carry forward a legacy of world-class creativity."

Bardacke is evidence that you can bring creativity to a company’s internal processes, not just the work consumers see, said Stuart Kronauge, svp of brand marketing and strategic communications for Coca-Cola North America. "Brynn’s vision for, and leadership of, our in-house creative agency has innovated the way we develop and deploy content," she said. —Stephanie Paterik

Liz Nixon, Assistant Vice President, AT&T Creator Lab

In her role with AT&T Creator Lab, Nixon is responsible for developing and overseeing emerging marketing and entertainment programs, including transmedia projects and entertainment properties like AT&T Hello Lab, Snapper Hero and @SummerBreak.

She has more than 10 years of experience at agencies including CP+B and Moxie Interactive and has led strategy and marketing initiatives for clients including Apple, Intel, Volkswagen and Turner.

“Liz is the ultimate visionary – developing strategies and executing them in ways that continuously move AT&T forward as an entertainment brand,” said Valerie Vargas, the telecom's vp of advertising and marketing.

Nixon called Atlanta “home to some of the country’s top brands and universities,” adding, “It’s invigorating to work in a city so focused on advancing opportunities for marketers to thrive.”Erik Oster

Matthew Lehosit, Marketing Director, Cartoon Network

Matthew Lehosit is Cartoon Network’s marketing director, a role that lets him oversee overall brand strategy and communication on key franchises including The Powerpuff Girls, Ben 10 and Adventure Time. He said his goal is "to work across all areas of business as the arrow to ensure everyone is working toward the same strategic bull's-eye."

Lehosit’s colleagues said they were glad to see him being recognized outside the company. "This is a well-deserved honor, and we are looking forward to more amazing work from Matt in the future," said Cartoon Network's vp of marketing, Ryan Kilpatrick.

How does Lehosit view his adopted hometown? "When I moved to Atlanta 12 years ago, I honestly didn’t realize what a hub for industry it actually was, and I’ve grown to develop a deep pride for this city, not only as my home, but also as an epicenter of culture in the South.” —A.J. Katz

Kim Goodman, CEO, WorldPay U.S.

Atlanta has quickly become known as a global hub for financial tech, and Worldpay is one of the largest names in the game. Kim Goodman manages all day-to-day operations for the London-based payments company’s North American operations, putting her right in the center of a tech niche that has earned Atlanta the nickname "Transaction Alley."

Having served as president of the American Express merchant-acquiring business and as general manager of Dell’s computer software and peripherals business, Goodman’s leadership in both the financial services and technology sectors allows her to play a vital role in bridging the fintech world in the U.S. and that of the U.K.

"From our partnership with Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center to supporting the companies of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, we’re committed to helping Atlanta stay on the cutting edge of fintech," she said.

"It has been exciting to tap into her wealth of skills and experience," said Worldpay Chief Commercial Officer Jack Funda. "Kim is passionate about technology-based innovation and is eager to support the Atlanta fintech community." Marty Swant

Julieta McCurry, Director of U.S. Marketing Communications & Sponsorships, Delta Air Lines

If you ask Julieta McCurry to describe what she does every day at Delta, she'll skip over brand strategy, sponsorships and media planning and go straight to the customers.

"If we are able to connect emotionally with customers in a way that keeps them coming back to Delta, then we’re doing our job," she said.

McCurry, currently the director of U.S. marketing communications and sponsorships, is a Delta veteran, having worked on and off for the air travel giant for the past 17 years. She's behind Delta's current ad campaign, which celebrates early risers and includes a spot narrated by Viola Davis. McCurry also led a recent partnership with Coca-Cola to turn tray tables on Delta flights into works of art in collaboration with 12 artists around the world.

"Julieta is one of those rare marketing leaders that innately knows how to generate emotional ties between a brand and its audience,” said Tim Mapes, Delta’s svp and CMO. "She recognizes consumer trends and capitalizes on the latest, most effective tools to reach our customers—all with an empathetic eye."

McCurry sees Delta as a "key player" in fostering Atlanta’s innovation ecosystem and loves being in the center of it all. She thinks developing connections with customers in new, unexpected ways is the best thing about being in the ATL. —Aneya Fernando

Shera Shrago, Senior Director of Ecommerce & Digital Marketing, Carter’s

Shera Shrago joined child clothing brand Carter’s and OshKosh B’Gosh the week they launched their first website. Seven years later, she’s credited with helping build the baby-clothing giant’s digital strategy brick by virtual brick. "I’ve been really fortunate," said Shrago, senior director of ecommerce and digital marketing. "I can’t even tell you how lucky I feel to be here from the ground up."

Evolving with the job—and the customer—has been key to her success. (She cut her teeth working for Home Depot’s print catalog and then website.) While many retailers divide their marketing staffs by channel, Carter’s takes a holistic approach to digital. The website’s goal is to drive both online and foot traffic. That’s a big change from even a year to three years ago, when everyone was pushing ecommerce, she said.

"Mom is a multichannel shopper right now," she added. "We’re fortunate enough to be with mom during the most special time in her life and her children’s lives, and we need to be where she wants to be. If she’s shopping in a store, browsing her phone, couch surfing and shopping online—we want to make it easy for her to get everything she needs for her baby."

Rapid evolution in digital trends means Shrago's job doesn’t get boring. Her team takes a test-and-see approach to decide which trends are worth adopting. "Every three months, there’s a new way to reach mom," she said. "We would have never known Facebook media was going to work for us if we hadn’t spent a little money on a whim a few years ago to test and see."

Atlanta is an ideal spot for learning and innovating, Shrago said. It’s home to big brands but few direct competitors, which means marketers are willing to talk shop. Carter’s hosts roundtable discussions where professionals from various industries can share tips about topics like social trends.

"My baby clothes don’t compete with that power tool or that can of Coke. We do a lot of talking—'What are you working on? I saw you do this,'"she said. "It always surprises me how small this community is for such a large city." —S.P.

Josh Martin, Senior Director of Social Media, and Navin Sharma, VP of Insights and Analytics, Arby’s

“When I got here three and a half years ago, Josh was a one-man show handling all things social, digital and mobile while working on his laptop,” says Arby’s brand president and CMO Rob Lynch.

But that was all before Pharrell and The Hat.

According to Lynch, the 2014 Grammys tweet "put us on the map"—and today, Martin manages a team of four, overseeing the chain’s brand strategy and content production across all digital, mobile and social media platforms.

Martin credits Arby’s culture of "more autonomy and less red tape" for allowing his team to develop a casual brand voice in appealing to niche audiences like gamers, hunters and golfers.

His path often crosses that of data whiz Navin Sharma, a self-described "outsider" when he was hired for a project-based consulting gig three years ago.

The team was so impressed, Lynch brought him on full-time "as an internal consulting service, if you will." Now Sharma leads a small unit dedicated to pricing strategy, product testing and consumer insights.

Both Arby’s stars are also longtime Atlanta residents who call the city a humble hub for both Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola and startups like the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak.

"[The startup influence] bleeds into local companies and their cultures," Martin says. "I know it has here."

Discussing his recent visits to Georgia Tech’s business incubator and the Atlanta Tech Village co-working space, Sharma adds, "It’s always good to step back, see what other people are doing and rethink what you’re doing." Patrick Coffee

Kamal Grant, Founder and President, Sublime Doughnuts

Never underestimate the power of doughnuts. Just ask Kamal Grant.

The navy veteran and Culinary Institute of America alumnus took a leap of faith when he founded his company, Sublime Doughnuts, back in 2008. After seeing a for-lease sign in a building on Atlanta's Westside, he bought the place on a whim. Safe to say, it was money well spent.

The shop, known for its original, fusion creations like The Orange Dream Star and The Yin Yang Twist, has since exploded in popularity. Sublime now boasts three locations (including one in Bangkok, thanks to a doughnut-loving entrepreneur from Thailand) and has developed a cult-like following.

Dawn DePetris, director of operations, credits Grant’s relentless innovation for the company’s success. "Kamal is constantly coming up with new, unique flavors of doughnuts, ice cream and coffee for our guests to enjoy," she said. "He pushes the envelope to make sure we offer a one-of-a-kind experience. Kamal’s passion is truly inspiring."

Grant said he "loves being able to create something new every day," whether it's a clever meme for the shop’s social accounts or a new, exotic type of doughnut. He believes Sublime has thrived in Atlanta thanks to the city’s diversity and strong middle class. Or, to put it another way: “It’s a great time to be a black businessman in Atlanta.” —A.F.

Mike Gomes, SVP of Fan Experience, Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons are moving into the new, state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the 2017 season, and Mike Gomes is helping create the team’s correspondingly revolutionary in-game experience.

At the center of the strategy is the importance of remembering "the role the team plays in the lives of fans and what this stadium means for the broader Atlanta community, said Gomes, who has a hand in the stadium’s multimedia productions, food and beverage promotion, app development, and just about any other segment that enhances a spectator’s experience.

Gomes, who previously helped improve the guest experience at Walt Disney World, is also tasked with creating an enthralling environment for the city’s new soccer team, Atlanta United FC.

"Mike’s dedication to creating the best possible experience for our fans and guests is unwavering," Rich McKay, president of AMB Sports and Entertainment, said. "He brings a level of passion, skills and knowledge that is inspiring to both our internal team and to the market." —Jameson Fleming

Jessica Stafford, VP of Marketing, Cox Automotive Media Group

Jessica Stafford joined Autotrader in 2007 as manager of digital marketing after spending a few years working for agencies on consumer brands including Verizon, Coca-Cola and Royal Caribbean.

Now vp of marketing for Cox Automotive Media Group—which includes Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book and Dealer.com—Stafford led the rollout of a new integrated strategy called “the Power of 3” to communicate how the three brands function together to serve consumers. She also leads ongoing partnerships among the brands and the likes of Turner, the NBA and Nascar.

John Kovac, evp and CMO at Cox Automotive, lauded Stafford for being a creative leader and problem solver. "Jessica has been able to create a culture of innovation and inspiration," he said.

Stafford credits Atlanta for being a pretty innovative and inspiring place to work.

"With its distinctive blend of community, culture and diversity and a vast amount of prominent brands and advertising agencies," she said, "Atlanta has emerged as a thriving space for young talent to grow fast and lead the industry."—Erik Wander

Nicholas Bianchi, Social Media Director, and Tiffany Baehman, CMO, Cricket Wireless

Most digitally savvy marketers would love to get a million views on a piece of their branded content. Getting 10 million? That's the holy grail.

So how about 30 million?

Cricket Wireless tallied that much and more with its "Unexpected John Cena" stunt, in which the brand brought an internet meme to life in heartwarming fashion. The viral video shocked Cena's fans by having him erupt from behind a picture of himself—and shocked the marketing world into recognizing that underdog wireless brand Cricket is more than able to punch above its weight.

Behind the AT&T subsidiary's savvy marketing is the Atlanta-based duo of CMO Tiffany Baehman and social media director Nicholas Bianchi.

"The digital and social campaigns that Tiffany and Nick put together show tremendous imagination and creativity that drive results," Cricket Wireless President John Dwyer said. "We’re in a highly competitive industry, and there's a new challenge thrown their way daily. Their passion and drive toward engaging with our customers in a fun and friendly way sets them apart from other marketers."

Baehman and Bianchi say the brand's focus on positivity makes their jobs doubly rewarding.

"So much of the marketing and general attitude in the social media space is negative," Bianchi said, "and I like being a positive force in an environment that prioritizes creativity and innovation."

Added Baehman, "One of the best aspects of working for Cricket Wireless is that the entire team embodies our brand and mission to give our customers something to smile about." —David Griner

Melanie Babcock, Senior Director of Agile Marketing, The Home Depot

Melanie Babcock oversees social and digital marketing while leading the Agile Marketing group, executing a holistic audience-led marketing approach for The Home Depot.

Babcock has served in her current role for around a year and a half, following her previous position as senior director of social media. She previously served in digital and social media strategy positions for MSLGroup Americas and Ketchum Public Relations.

"Our customers have high expectations, and we need to constantly prove our value," Babcock said. "In order to connect with them, we need highly personalized media, content and data strategies. Home Depot shoppers take time to make decisions about what to put in their home, and they rely on The Home Depot to be with them every step of the way."

"Melanie is a unique blend of art and science," added Home Depot's vp of marketing, Lisa DeStefano. "She combines our focus on consumer’s wants and needs with technology and the creative to deliver content in highly relevant ways. She is a driving force in forming the future of marketing at the Home Depot." —E.O.

Carol Naughton, President, Purpose Built Communities

In the 1990s, Atlanta's East Lake neighborhood was one of the most dangerous in America, with a crime rate 18 times higher than the national average. Today it is a case study in successful community revitalization.

Heavily involved in East Lake's revitalization—and now with similar efforts in 16 cities nationwide—are Atlanta nonprofit Purpose Built Communities and its president, Carol Naughton.

“For more than 20 years, Carol Naughton has been one of the driving forces for holistic neighborhood revitalization both in Atlanta and the country," says former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, executive board chair of Purpose Built Communities. "Her contributions to the fields of community development, housing, education and community health will be felt for generations to come."

While she is highly regarded within Atlanta, Naughton's reputation is rapidly growing elsewhere as she brings the lessons of East Lake's resurrection to other struggling communities.

“It has been a privilege to be able to devote more than 20 years of my life to the work of rebuilding communities and forming partnerships to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty," Naughton says. "It’s no coincidence that this work started here in Atlanta, the birthplace of the civil rights movement, where we continue to work to create a more equitable region." —D.G.

Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “Pee” Thomas, Co-Founders, Quality Control Music

Pierre “Pee” Thomas and Kevin “Coach K” Lee may be seen as rising stars for founding hip-hop label Quality Control Music, but they're far from new to the music scene. Earlier in his career, Coach K managed Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane when both artists were just getting their start.

When Coach K joined forces with Pee, the two set their sights on Atlanta hip-hop group Migos—of the hugely popular hit "Bad and Boujee"—as soon as the label opened its doors in 2013. The label has since added Rich The Kid and Lil Yachty to its roster.

While Quality Control Music still has some lofty goals—mainly to win a Grammy and produce a feature film—Pee and Coach K have already passed some major milestones. For one, Quality Music Control entered into a joint venture with Capital Music Group in 2015. The key to the team's success, according to Pee, is "consistency and staying close to culture, so close that we are able to have influence on where music is going next." —Katie Richards

Heather Balsley, SVP of Americas Brands, IHG

When IHG launched its boutique Hotel Indigo brand, the company founded it in Midtown Atlanta, a city that encapsulates the spirit of the chain.

"Our city has a rich history of iconic brands, and thanks to a robust startup ecosystem and a highly educated workforce, it’s also a great place to launch new ones," said Heather Balsley, who leads IHG Americas’ brand management, loyalty, partnerships, marketing and brand operations.

"Atlanta is known for being inventive, creative and welcoming, and as a hospitality company, we couldn’t ask for a better place to do business," she said.

Balsley embodies that Atlanta mentality as a leader within the company. "She is constantly nurturing [our brands], elevating their position and building their strength," said Elie Maalouf, IHG Americas CEO. "Heather leads people the same way, creating a vibrant environment where our brand and marketing team is constantly reaching for higher ambitions." —J.F.

Shannon McIntosh, Driving Coach, Porsche North America

At age 4, Shannon McIntosh discovered racing. At 5, she was already competing. And on her 17th birthday, her racing career was well under way when she got to take the wheel of her first Porsche.

"I grew up in a small town and hadn't been around sports cars. I was doing dirt track racing," McIntosh told Adweek. But experiencing the power and precision of a Porsche Carrera GT made her feel an instant connection.

"When you drive a Porsche, there's no other vehicle like it," she said. "There's a sense of purpose in everything they do, in every detail in the vehicles."

By 2016, McIntosh was an accomplished race car driver living in Charlotte, N.C., when she visited Porsche Brand Experience in Atlanta. The Porsche team was intrigued by her talent, and soon she was surprised to get a full-time job offer to be the brand's driving coach.

"When I set out to pursue a career as a race car driver, I had aspirations to, down the road, give back and help others," she said. "For me, this feels like part of that goal. It brings it all together for me and has brought something new into my life." —D.G.

Lain Shakespeare, Corporate Citizenship Director, MailChimp

MailChimp is getting a reputation for taking the idea of being a corporate citizen to a new level. That all started four years ago when co-founder and CEO Ben Chestnut asked Atlanta native Lain Shakespeare to define what community means for the company.

“That was my mandate,” said Shakespeare, corporate citizenship director for the email-marketing darling. “He gave me a little budget and asked me to define it.”

Chestnut developed a clear-eyed answer to that question: MailChimp invests in community partners that support artistic excellence, considerate urbanism and stopping cycles of poverty. “Atlanta is one of the least-equitable cities in the country, which is distressing,” he explained. “When the tech world thinks of equity, they think ‘what can I get?’ When we think of equity, we think ‘what can we give?’”

Shakespeare rolled out MailChimp Community College, a program that connects employees with nearby philanthropic organizations. The goal is twofold—strengthen the company’s ties to the community and develop civically minded business leaders.

"Lain is building a thoughtful and strategic corporate citizenship program that aligns with MailChimp’s mission to empower the underdog,” Chestnut told Adweek. “And he’s never treated his work as a tradeoff between growing the business and doing good in our community—he knows it's the same thing.”

The company, which began in 2001 and became a household name after sponsoring the Serial podcast in 2014, also launched a creative campaign to stoke neighborly pride. It bought all 60 ad spots in a train station, filled them with portraits of Atlantans, and used the Instagram hashtag “weloveatl” to share the work online.

“We paid for all the ads and basically removed them. Our goal was not to put MailChimp’s name all over it,” Shakespeare said. “We turned the train station into an art gallery dedicated to portraiture so people who were commuting wouldn’t have to be subjected to a barrage of ads, but could see their community.”

The city is finally getting its due for the role it plays in American business and culture, he added. “I’m from Atlanta so I’m a little biased,” he added. “Big brands have thrived and helped drive the community conversation here for a while. With the burgeoning film industry here, it’s completing the picture and helping people recognize Atlanta as the cultural capital it always has been.” —S.P.

Brian Miesieski, Special Hops Commander, and Tucker Berta Sarkisian, Talking Head, SweetWater Brewing

What a time to be alive if you're a lover of craft beer. The Northeast has Yuengling and Brooklyn Brewery, the West has Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas—and the South has SweetWater.

The Atlanta-based brewer's colorful delivery trucks and 420 Extra Pale Ale taps are inescapable sights across the Southeast, where it has rapidly grown into one of the largest craft brewers in the U.S.

"It’s a really exciting time to be a marketer in the craft beer segment, and it’s an especially fantastic time for SweetWater," says marketing vp Brian Miesieski. "Our brewery is currently on a rocket ship ride as we expand across the U.S. and now globally."

But it's not always a smooth ride, he says, due to an explosion of competitors and changing consumer tastes. That's why the brand relies on a consistently energetic approach to marketing, digital content and PR, all radiating from the brand's commitment to environmentalism and community.

"I can’t deny the fun factor," says PR director Tucker Berta Sarkisian, "but I’m also proud that SweetWater passionately supports the communities where we’re poured, and that we have such a strong commitment to the environment. Delicious product, strong brand and hilarious antics, coupled with altruism and philanthropy, equate to a PR director’s dream." —D.G.

Corinne Cuthbertson, Brand, Advertising and Digital Marketing Executive, SunTrust

SunTrust launched its ongoing "onUp" campaign in 2016 with its first Super Bowl ad, “Hold Your Breath.” The website to which the ad directed Super Bowl 50 viewers, OnUp.com, provides a wealth of content including articles, blogs, videos and financial planning tools along with quizzes and calculators and a big social media component, all with the aim of inspiring people to take control of their finances.

And Corinne Cuthbertson has been at the center of the campaign from the beginning. As brand strategist, Cuthbertson oversees the direct marketing, advertising, marketing communications, promotions, digital marketing and social media teams at the financial services company.

SunTrust CMO Susan Somersille Johnson gave Cuthbertson a lot of credit for helping launch "onUp," calling her a "dynamic leader."

“Her strength in all channels she oversees is evident in the ongoing growth of our brand awareness and client loyalty,” the CMO said.

Cuthbertson said the company and the city of Atlanta "provide energetic environments where you are inspired to push the boundaries and try new things when it comes to marketing and branding, such as launching the 'onUp' movement last year."

"It is very rewarding to be on a team playing an integral role in delivering on SunTrust’s purpose and helping millions of Americans move from financial stress to financial confidence," she added. —E.W.

Morgan Dewan, VP of Social Media, Turner Sports

This is a busy time of year for Morgan Dewan. As vp of social media for Turner Sports and Turner Studios, Dewan is responsible for social media strategy across all Turner sports properties, including NBA TV, The NBA on TNT, PGA.com, MLB on TBS, and NCAA Digital, which includes NCAA March Madness.

Mark Johnson, svp of digital for Turner Sports, describes his colleague as "a leader and an innovator in the social media space."

"Morgan has propelled Turner Sports and our social brands into some of the most respected, heavily consumed content platforms in the industry," Johnson said.

Dewan is dedicated to her work and to the city of Atlanta. "Turner embodies the best of Atlanta—passion, fun, innovation, entrepreneurialism, hospitality and a sense of family," she said. "Oh, and the Atlanta food scene is incredible. What’s not to love?" —A.K.