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Director of over 60 Super Bowl commercials: 'Better decisions are made when you have no time—you have to go with your gut'

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Director Bryan Buckley speaks at the Cinema Cafe during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 31, 2015 in Park City, Utah.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Sundance

With more than 60 Super Bowl commercials under his belt with clients such as Bud Light, Coca-Cola, Best Buy and Mastercard, director Bryan Buckley has earned his nickname of "King of the Super Bowl."

But his first Super Bowl ad in 1999 was a rocky launch into the high-profile commercial space.

In a 30-second spot for job site Monster.com, kids deadpanned to the camera their answers to the age-old question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with responses such as "I want to be a 'yes' man' and "I want to be forced into early retirement."

Viewers weren't immediately taken with the commercial's dark humor and gave it low marks in the USA Today Ad Meter, a consumer poll of the best and worst Super Bowl ads that's become an industry standard for measuring public reaction (and therefore success) of a multi-million dollar project.

"Certain commercials are designed to play extremely well on the poll," Buckley tells CNBC Make It, adding, "they're more disposable; it's almost like a sugar rush."

The Monster.com ad didn't strike the same sugary tone as, say, two Dalmatian puppies getting separated at birth (the No. 1 rated ad of 1999, from Budweiser), but Buckley believed in the power of the messaging: that the job search engine could energize people to get new jobs they could be proud of.

Buckley's instincts paid off. The Monster.com ad continued to get airplay over the next few days while conversation around other commercials died down, and the job site ended up crashing due to increased user activity.

"Before the Super Bowl, Monster.com's traffic was running at about 1.5 million unique visitors per month," Ad Age reported in 2000. "For the remainder of 1999, it averaged 2.5 million visitors per month."

The director's Super Bowl work over the next two decades has included memorable spots ranging from this year's celebrity-filled ad for Hyundai, as well as 2019's heartfelt Microsoft mini-documentary of kids coming together over the Xbox adaptive video-game controller.

At this point in his career, Buckley says he has a good sense of what will and won't work, saying he can usually tell within 40 seconds into a phone call with a client whether the project is something he wants to direct. As for the Microsoft ad, "I thought it was amazing what Microsoft was doing, so we bent over backwards to get it done, even close to the deadline," Buckley says.

While most of his Super Bowl directing begins around August or September the year prior to game day, he's worked on ads with as few as eight days leading up to the main event.

"I love the bum rushes; they're amazing," Buckley says. "There's all this stress, and everyone's freaking out and it's chaos. Better decisions are made when you have no time — you have to go with your gut, and the Super Bowl is a good example of that."

All of Buckley's filmmaking skills have been learned on-the-job. He earned a degree in advertising design from Syracuse University and co-founded an ad agency after graduation. He and his co-founder soon decided to close the agency and take up screenwriting instead. Buckley landed a job creating commercials for ESPN's "This Is SportsCenter" campaign, which ended up being his crash-course in directing.

His commercial work would propel him to the Super Bowl, which is considered to be the marketing world's biggest stage. While advertisers pay top dollar to get airtime for their commercials — to the tune of $5.6 million for a 30-second spot — Buckley says his Super Bowl projects don't pay any more than his usual directing rates.

But steady commercial work has helped him finance other film projects. Buckley has directed feature films such as "The Bronze" and "Pirates of Somalia." His latest project "Saria," which Buckley wrote and directed, is nominated for an Academy Award in the category of best short film.

He says the first people he thanked after receiving the Oscar nomination news included former clients and actors involved in his Super Bowl projects.

"I'm fortunate to be in this position," Buckley says.

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