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Why Google says its AI-powered Performance Max isn’t another black box solution

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Since the advent of ChatGPT, AI-powered marketing has become the latest talking point throughout the industry. A myriad of ad agencies, ad tech vendors and platforms have all spent the last few months in an AI arms race, leveraging AI to optimize media buys, write creative copy and predict analytics.

One predecessor in this growing space is Google’s AI-powered Performance Max. Google first officially launched Performance Max globally in November of 2021 as a way to buy Google ads across YouTube, display, search, discover, Gmail and maps from a single campaign. Since then, the platform has seen new features, including A/B experiments, allowing for campaign testing.

With all of the optimization the program seemingly has to offer, it has been labeled the blackest black box of all Google ad products, giving the platform more control than advertisers, according to AdExchanger. To learn more about Google’s AI arms race qualifications, pitch to advertisers and what’s next for Performance Max, Digiday caught up with Sean Downey, president of Americas and global partners at Google Inc.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

What exactly is Google’s Performance Max offering advertisers? 

We’re seeing a lot of retailers start to find ways to work in the marketplace a lot more efficiently and build better relationships with customers by using new age technology. And they’re doing that in response to consumers. We think they’re doing that by addressing consumer behaviors and leveraging AI tools to do that more efficiently. It’s really a single campaign type that’s allowing advertisers to access all the Google ads inventory, not in pre-planned silos based on what you spent last month or last year, but really thinking about the speed of that consumer and where they are in that moment so you can have the most impact from there.

How are you pitching it to advertisers, especially in the AI arms race?

We always start everything with what a customer is looking for, so we listen. Right now, in the retail industry, it’s growth and it’s efficiency. So then we say, this is how these platforms can help you. We like to put solutions together. AI can do a handful of things. It can do analytics for you, it can do predictions for you and then it can create things out of other things, that’s generative. If we focus on analytics and prediction, we can help answer their questions really well.

One of the main features of Performance Max is that it optimizes itself, making it somewhat of a black box with limited to no optimization options for buyers. Any plans to change or give advertisers more control? Why?

We’re always listening to feedback from our advertisers on what they want and how our tools can be utilized. We’re evaluating those asks and those questions from them. Right now, as we’re in the marketplace, we’re letting them leverage either Performance Max or their own enterprise tools to drive activity. We’re just letting them put next to each other to see what drives the best performance for them. As we get deeper into it, we’re certainly listening to the larger customers and retailers, and we may adapt based on what we see from them.

What concerns to advertisers have about Performance Max being a ‘black box’? How does Google respond to those concerns?

We show them the results and we help them get some guidance into where performance was driven, how that works. We’re just not letting them pre-set the conditions. They’re not choosing the formats upfront, but we’re giving them the back end information about what’s working, what’s not working so they have some comfort level. Then we go into really go into, did it meet your goals or not and are you happy with those results? Primarily, when we have that type of discussion, people are quite pleased with where they’re at using these types of tools.

You’re working on more controls for advertisers?

Performance Max is focused on outcome and optimization based on conversion. Allowing an advertiser to put too many constraints around their campaigns can actually hinder that goal. We go through that discussion with them, but we’re always listening to their feedback. We’re always listening to the concerns. At the same time we hear that, we’re actually working on more controls that make sense and allows them to still get the same types of results. But it’s a very fluid conversation and we want them to be successful and have comfort level with whatever technology they’re using. That type of transparency is really important to us too.

What does more control look like?

We’re still working through a lot of the feedback. We’re still in the rollout phase of Performance Max [A/B Experiments]. We’ve got a lot of retailers on it. Other advertisers are starting to onboard their way onto it now. We’ll probably go through a few cycles with them before we start to launch [what’s next]. It’s too soon to say [when changes would take place]. Right now, what’s in the marketplace would be the general tool that we’re going to have. We’ll probably collect feedback throughout the year?

What are the plans to evolve as AI evolves?

Any time we’re thinking about the future of ad tools, we think there’s a huge place for AI to help businesses grow. As we have access to more technology, we’re going to continue to find ways that we can have a creative value to the campaigns or the tools that helps that grow. For our product, we’re trying to think of ways we can leverage that to help optimization, help with creative or help with messaging. As they see things that work at scale, we’ll build them into our tools. But there’s a consistent drumbeat of innovation that we’re playing with. As it becomes something that we think works, we’ll launch it.

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