How an Agency’s Fight Against AIDS Led to an Unforgettable Moment With Bono

After 4 years of work, .hiv domain has its moment in the spotlight

Jonathan Ive, Apple design svp (Getty Images)

It was one of the most interesting and unscripted moments of this year's Cannes Lions, and it only happened because one man was willing to make a fool of himself to help save lives.

In the closing moments of Bono's presentation at Cannes, the singer asked attendees to share their ideas for partnerships that could boost his anti-AIDS nonprofit, (Red). Also on stage, though largely silent throughout the event, was Apple design guru Jonathan Ive.

Several members of the crowd jumped at the chance, and soon the session's time had run out. That's when Ive noticed an audience member gesticulating wildly at him, trying to get the microphone. 

"He smiled at me, stood up and came over," recalled Michael Trautmann, co-founder of German agency thjnk and the man who had been waving at Ive. "I passed my iPhone to my neighbor to take some pictures, and just as [moderator and Vice CEO Shane Smith] was about to end the session, Jonathan helped me pitch .hiv to Bono."

Here's the pitch: (Red) would be the first organization to receive a .hiv URL. In return, one would assume, (Red)'s involvement would help boost public awareness of the new top-level domain, which is finally slated to launch next month after years of effort, Trautmann said. 

This is no small-time project. Trautmann says more than 10,000 organizations have expressed interest in registering a .hiv Web address, which generates small donations for those living with HIV and AIDS every time someone visits the URL. 

Trautmann's pitch received an enthusiastic response from Bono and a rousing applause from the audience at Cannes, but how will the team behind .hiv parlay this PR coup into a successful global launch for the domain?

We caught up with Trautmann to learn more about the past, present and future of the .hiv concept and how a partnership with (Red) might come together:

Adweek: Has there been any follow-up from Bono’s people or the (Red) team yet about your idea of giving them the first .hiv URL,

Michael Trautmann, thjnk

Michael Trautmann, co-founder of thjnk: A year ago, I met Jenifer Willig, the former marketing director of (Red). Right after Cannes I sent her a mail and she immediately helped me to get in contact with the right person at (Red).

How long has the .hiv idea been under development? How close is it to becoming reality?
The good news is, .hiv is becoming reality right now!

It's been a long road. The idea was born at our agency almost four and a half years ago. We helped set up an NGO that developed the idea in a social initiative, much bigger and more grounded than we would have been able to do on our own. Together, we built up a huge network, which helped spread the idea day by day. We went to hundreds of conferences and lectures and talked to thousands of people. What started out on a piece of paper with three letters and a dot will soon come to life.

Some weeks ago, dotHIV finally signed the long awaited contract with ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). Right now, we already have more than 10,000 pre-registrations and commitments from a large number of NGOs such as Alicia Keys' "Keep a Child Alive" and New York City's "Gay Men's Health Crisis."

.hiv will be officially launched on August 26. The first domains will go online that day and then everyone will be able to buy their own domain at their preferred registrar (like Moniker or

What’s the tweetable, 140-character explanation of how .hiv would work?
@dotHIV is the digital #redribbon: every click on a .hiv-website triggers a micro donation and saves lives in the fight against #AIDS

How would that work for and other advocacy groups? Corporate sponsors for the site's donations?
Whatever the company or NGO, every click on any website with a .hiv ending triggers a micro donation. The money doesn't come from the owner of the website but from a pool holding all the money we earn from our domain sales. So the more addresses we sell, the more money we can donate. From that perspective, every click is like a digital stepping stone—companies and users can do good together.

You can also compare the principle behind it to a charity marathon: For every kilometer run, companies donate money. We do it on a broader scale and in the digital world.
The money goes to selected projects that fight HIV and AIDS on the front lines and directly support people living with the virus. In doing so, we focus on providing safe access to therapy and HIV medicines. We solely fund organizations that work in this field.

There are plans to let Internet users decide who the money should go to, but that's still in the pipeline.

Tell us about your agency, thjnk.
We believe that all great things start with free thought. We believe in our people, as well as in collaboration whenever we feel there are others who can do it better. There are 240 of us spread over three cities (Berlin, Düsseldorf and Hamburg). We work for clients such as Audi, Gaggenau, Haribo, Paulaner and IKEA.

We have more women in management positions than any other agency of our size and we're happy to report that we've grown every year since we started out in 2004. We are the first and so far only German agency to be voted "Global Newcomer Agency of the Year" by the New York Festivals (in 2009). What's more, we won the first and so far only Black Lion for Creative Effectiveness (in 2012) for Germany. Just a few weeks ago, we set up another record, being the first German agency to win a golden Global Effie (for the Audi "Land of Quattro" campaign). But whether we win awards with .hiv or not, I truly hope this project will be the most successful work I've ever been a part of.

Is .hiv an official agency project for thjnk or just something you’re pursuing on the side?
The idea came into being within the agency and from the very beginning .hiv was an official project for thjnk. Two years ago, we suspended virtually every other pro bono project (and we were doing a lot of them) to focus on this project. Even people who were involved in the project but left the agency for another job are still committed to it.

Did you come to Cannes specifically hoping to raise awareness of .hiv and find some initial corporate participants?
There are so many good reasons to come to Cannes. Together with my two founding partners, Karen Heumann and Armin Jochum, we decided last year to use Cannes as a multi-topic platform. But yes, I did hope to raise awareness of .hiv. And Carolin Silbernagl, the CEO of dotHIV, told me not to come back without having met Bono.

Bono seemed really excited about your idea, and the audience gave you some serious applause. Has the Cannes experience changed your outlook of how big .hiv could become and how quickly it could grow?
When I finished my pitch, I felt that this was a special moment for our .hiv and for thjnk. My tweet, your article and many others that followed showed us once again that we are working on a very powerful idea. But this is just the beginning. We still have a very long way to go, but we’re totally committed to making it happen.