A painting hangs behind James Sunderland’s desk featuring a collection of menswear on a clothesline. At one side is the leather jumpsuit of Evel Knievel, on the other is the overcoat of Wyatt Earp. In between is a pop culture collection befitting the renaissance nature of the man who sits below the piece of art.
The director of social media at Over The Top Marketing, Sunderland appreciates excellence in any form, whether it’s jumping 16 buses on a motorcycle, taming the Old West, or creating a beer with a perfect head of foam.
It’s that pursuit of excellence that drives him into the minutiae of wringing every ounce of benefit from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et. al., for his OTT clients.
“James cares about social media, he lives and breathes it,” Over The Top President Brett Martin said. “His ability to mine the demographic and psychographic data of social media users and target ads for our customers has even earned him praise from Facebook employees.
“He adds an incredible amount of value to what we do for our clients. You can’t overstate the value of relevant eyeballs seeing your link.”
The largely self-taught Sunderland remembers the moment it all came together, what he refers to as his defining moment. Guided by his heart, he had been committed to doing things “the right way,” a philosophy that flowed more along ethical rivers than the manner in which one placed a hashtag. After slogging away for months, Sunderland walked into the office one day and a Google update had changed an algorithm in its search engine. Sunderland’s principles and intuition aligned with the direction Google was suddenly pointed. Overnight, when the “spammy” and black hat drivel was significantly less and the playing field was leveled on behalf of the reputable, Sunderland’s commitment to the high road paid off: Clients of Over The Top took a journey to the top of local web searches.
“We were trying so hard and I was going to conferences everywhere and spending a tremendous amount of time and money – personal money – to crack the code to get our clients ranked locally,” Sunderland recalled. “It was very validating that we did the right thing and took the right steps and the hard work paid off. We abided by the rules and when the playing field was leveled, we came out on top.”
“I love generating leads. I love doing that as effective as possible. I love the creative aspect, honing in on optimization, honing in on conversion rate optimization. If you see me giving high fives to people, it’s because we ran a test and have an ad performing really well. I try to beat AdWords; that’s my goal.”
If he was walking around a little taller, it was for good reason. He had come a long way from the young man who started and sold his own food product company in his mid-20s and had a secure job in local city government. Despite it, his passion was in social media, and hoping for a paying gig. When OTT CEO Chad Meisinger began talking about his needs for someone to rule the newly minted Web 2.0, Sunderland’s ears propped up like a Doberman pinscher’s.
“Fast forward five years and the size we are, I’m the person who’s very analytical and skeptical,” Sunderland said. “I feel social media is a much broader marketing channel than it has ever been, but needs to be treated skeptically, needs to prove itself, needs to be scalable, and needs to fit within the overall strategy for a client.
“I don’t want to be told the time, I want to see how the clock is made. I don’t just take things at face value and lean toward the quantitative over qualitative. That’s what social media is, creative and data blended together.”
When Over The Top’s pharaoh of Facebook begins talking about himself and what he does, the word “passion” gets mentioned. A lot. He learned the game on his own dime. And he doesn’t just stick his toe in the water, he immerses himself completely. He arrives early, he leaves late.
“The devil’s in the details,” he said. “I’m very inquisitive. I have a library at home of marketing books. Social media, marketing and digital content strategy is something I’m very passionate about. The learning doesn’t stop for me. I get a lot of joy in trying to master it.”
Sunderland is currently pioneering work on Facebook advertising in which the client pays cost-per-click to be seen; the ads need to be more engaging and, as colleague Adam Campos said, “James has a good eye for that stuff.”
It all fits into what drives him.
“I love generating leads,” Sunderland said. “I love doing that as effective as possible. I love the creative aspect, honing in on optimization, honing in on conversion rate optimization. If you see me giving high fives to people, it’s because we ran a test and have an ad performing really well. I try to beat AdWords; that’s my goal.”
His commitment to his career is consistent with his lifestyle.
A self-proclaimed coffee geek who loves getting into the weeds of his work, the Orange County, Calif., native—he graduated from nearby Irvine High—appreciates artisanship and craftsmanship regardless of the subject.
“It could be a graphic of data that somebody put together,” he said, “or something someone put on Twitter with 140 characters who were able to put in so much value and content.”
Or it could be craft beer or fine cigars, a couple of things that rank right behind social media in the 32-year-old’s life. He also likes boxing, and enjoys it as a means of fitness.
“I love the technicality,” Sunderland said. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s a lot like marketing, a blend between creativity and technology. For boxing, there’s a lot of technique and athleticism at the same time, and you get to see those two things work together at the same time as a single product. It’s called the ‘sweet science’ and I think the same thing could be said for digital marketing right now.”
Campos, OTT’s director of content, has been sitting next to Sunderland for the last five years. He also has been a boxing partner. He knows, first-hand, the 6-foot-2 Sunderland’s best punch is a left hook.
“James likes to get super meticulous about everything,” Campos said. “He likes to wring everything for what it’s worth. The advantage is that you know he’s going to cover all the bases and exhaust all the options. You can rely on that.
“Ranking well in Google Maps can be very competitive and when it’s competitive like that, you need to make sure all your Ts are crossed and I’s are dotted, and that’s a big capital T. You’re looking for any advantage you can get over your competitors. James said, ‘This is what we need.’ He pioneered handling all those citations (to increase rankings).”
And the impact? “Better results, higher rankings, which in turn leads to more visits, more phone calls, more leads, which in turn may lead to more revenue and sales,” Campos said.
In the group setting that exists at Over The Top, Sunderland is not only a big presence physically, but also around the conference table. He’s such an outside-the-box thinker he has an opinion about everything even though he’s basically shy and reserved; though discussions can appear to be over, “James keeps the conversation going,” Campos said, “and we’re able to examine all points of view.”
“There’s a lot to be said about strong opinions,” Sunderland said. “It makes people rethink things they didn’t have an opinion about, but I’m very able to back down, too. If it makes sense, I’m just as easily passionate for the other side. I like to engage my brain and be very involved and I like it when other people are, too. When the dust settles, you have a better product. You don’t have something people settled with, but something that people fought for and have a stake in.”
Sunderland isn’t just a one-man band on behalf of clients such as The Joint Chiropractic and Coldwell Banker Town & Country, he has help from Natasha Kadimi, who’s fresh out of college and benefiting from a mentor relationship.
“He’s very open and willing to show me everything, and never makes me feel I’m incapable of doing something he’s doing,” Kadimi said. “He’s very willing to share his knowledge. It’s a great trait of his” not limited to the office. “He does skill-sharing workshops sometimes when he’ll help other peers in the industry, and he’s willing to give out skills in his free time to charities and skill-sharing events.
“He believes that if you acquire knowledge, you have to give it away.”
Like a true renaissance man.
OVER THE TOP WITH JAMES SUNDERLAND
What’s in your fridge that you have to have?
I’m a craft beer guy. Local breweries – I love them. The Bruery in Placentia (Calif.) makes some phenomenal Belgian beers; I was there when they had two beers on tap and had just opened. And they have beers worldwide; I saw their beers when I traveled to Denmark and Barcelona. But I can have a Coors Light just as well.
Is there anything you can’t be caught without (not including your phone)?
A pour-over coffee maker. It’s so easy to make a great cup of coffee. There was a lot of passion behind producing great coffee and I really appreciate that.
Not including family members, you can have dinner with any four people living or dead. Who would they be?
Steve Jobs. He’s an absolutely fascinating person who accomplished so much and really allowed himself to care about what he did. I think a lot of people check in and check out. Like any artist, he really gave of himself, it was just in a different format. Elon Musk because he’s a person who’s so committed to his work and so committed to making a dent in the universe rather than just sitting by. Jackson Pollock was another person who was not intimidated to do something different and who bent the status quo. Salvador Dali: That would be nuts to have him there. I’m a huge fan. I’ve been very much into arts, surrealism, and he was an artist in the sense of how he played his persona more so than anything he actually contributed with paints. I think every ounce of that conversation between the four would be drenched with passion and lively talk, but there’s still intellect involved. That’s the way they believe it is; when you see those things interact with each other, you get this great exchange. It’s innovation, it’s futurist; I’m excited for the capabilities we have now and I’d love to see it at a dinner table. Art and technology: Nothing more. Steve Jobs … art that people interact with. And the financial gain to that is marketing. And now it’s for a purpose rather than art’s sake, and it’s for financial gain.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?
I’ve had a lot of great experiences. Hiking to Machu Picchu was really spectacular. It was a great experience but like most travel, it’s not so much the place, it’s the thought, adventure and ideal of being somewhere and knowing significant events happened there. You’re very small in the world, and that humbling experience stays with you. There were a lot of people before you, and a lot of people after you. It’s neat to participate in that.