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Volume 22 No. 23
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Forum: Marketing executives reflect on legacy of Kristi Atkins

Octagon’s Lisa Murray accepted a prestigious award last week as one of five “Women of Distinction” at the Women in Sports and Events (WISE) luncheon in New York City. But the day before her honor, her mind was distracted and her heart was heavy as she thought about one of her dear friends who had died only days before.

Kristi Atkins, who began working with Murray decades ago at what was then Advantage and had run her own shop, Aim Marketing Solutions, since 2004, had surrendered in her fight with breast cancer at the young age of 51. Many in the sports industry knew and appreciated Atkins, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer years ago and fought it off successfully, only to see it return with an unforgivable vengeance in the last year. “It is so very sad,” Murray said. “Kristi was the epitome of positivity, tenacity and warmth. She was a fighter until the end, and it’s still so surreal.” 

Rick Jones, CEO of FishBait Marketing, had been close to Atkins since working with her at Advantage. Jones’ voice was as subdued as I ever heard it as he was driving down to her visitation. He told me he had packed an old Aim Marketing T-shirt to wear on the trip, and his voice began to lift when he got into his rhythm of what she meant to him — and how hard she fought. He recalled that Atkins took part in a cancer survivor walk recently and attended the Kentucky Derby, her favorite event, in May. He visited her at home the day before her death, after the cancer had spread through her body. He was afraid she wouldn’t recognize him, but when he sat on her bed, she said, “Hey, Rick!” They were among her last words, as she died less than 10 hours later.

I share this story not because I knew Atkins well. We had met and communicated a number of times. But I greatly admired her reputation and network, and I’m sick of these killer diseases taking our colleagues way too young. Atkins’ personal and professional journey, her accomplishments and the respect she engendered shouldn’t go unnoticed or unrecognized. She had a lot of fans and was just appreciated for being a good person. There are a number of them in our business, but they often don’t get the accolades or attention they deserve.

Atkins started from the ground up at an agency, and showed she was a risk-taker with guile in starting Aim Marketing Solutions in Atlanta in 2004. At Aim, she led the sports marketing for SunTrust Bank and represented UPS, at one time overseeing a fun promotion for the brand around Big Brown, the 2008 Kentucky Derby winner. She gave back — no better example than being president of the national board for WISE. She was a mentor, but also a wife, boss and friend. Longtime sports marketer Dockery Clark, shook up by the news, went back more than 20 years with Atkins, first working with her on the Bank of America business in 1998. “She could do it all. She was smart, dedicated, giving and a wonderful mentor to many,” Clark said. 

While driving, Jones thought about Atkins’ legacy as he was thinking about his eulogy. “I can’t think of any sports marketing agency exclusively owned by a woman,” he said. “That is pretty pioneering. Owning your own business takes guts. There is no place to hide. For a woman to do that in an industry dominated by men is pretty special. In addition, women in the industry had a real role model in Kristi. She touched a number of young women and was an example in telling them, ‘Hey, you can be successful.’”

At WISE’s ceremony in New York, Murray dedicated her award to Atkins and stressed that the departed board member be remembered as a role model to everyone in the room. On that same day, just hours earlier, was a funeral service for Atkins at the First Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City, Ga., where flowers were welcome, as Atkins loved flowers.

Kristi Atkins followed her passion and was successful while conducting herself with grace, humility and humor. Her story ends far too soon, but it’s one to remember and remain inspired by.

First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week, at the 22:35 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.