Lien Verwimp flipped through the rumpled, yellowing newspapers with a bemused look on her face, not sure how to react to the curious birthday gift in front of her.
Her father, Herman Verwimp, had just shared an 18-year-old secret with his 18-year-old daughter.
The secret involved her birth, a father’s excitement about his first-born’s birth, and of all things, INMA.
Like arguing that the product is the paper and not the journalism, Herman’s gift for Lien was not the notebook of old newspaper clippings. It was the love behind the notebook.
And the story.
In 1993, Herman Verwimp was a young marketing manager for the Belgian regional daily Het Belang van Limburg.
Like many newspapers of the day, much of the company’s focus was on how to attract young readers and female readers. Research suggested that birth announcements connected well with these demographics, though Het Belang van Limburg tended to place them next to the obituaries — not the best packaging, not even two decades ago.
Herman took his curiosity to his first INMA World Congress in Toronto in April 1993 where, as a new member of INMA, he asked delegates what they did with their birth announcements. A natural networker, Herman gathered the ideas and aimed to package them for his company.
And then life interjected a dimension Herman never could have imagined.
Two months after the Toronto conference, Herman’s wife, Bea, gave birth to Lien.
Herman was so excited that he came up with the idea to send faxes and letters to INMA members worldwide, asking them to put a birth announcement in their newspapers announcing Lien’s arrival into the world.
He even shared a copy of her birth card that included a cartoon by a Het Belang van Limburg cartoonist saying Lien is “made in Venice” and arrived by gondola over the river that flowed in the back of Herman’s garden in Voeren.
Remember, this was before the age of e-mail, SMS, mobile phones, and instant messaging. Herman was determined to get as many announcements in newspapers internationally, and he was doing it the only way technology of the day allowed.
In total, 30 INMA members placed the ad for free from Norway to South Africa to Australia to the United States to Indonesia to France. Prensa Libre in Guatemala didn’t have a birth announcement section, so they placed an editorial announcement that started, “Dear readers, we received an unusual request from ...”
And they all mailed Herman a copy of the birth announcement, which he put together in a notebook with the goal of presenting it to Lien on her 18th birthday.
For long-time members of INMA, this story may sound familiar. Nearly two decades ago, Herman wrote a column for Ideas Magazine titled, “INMA, Network For Babies,” which describes what I’ve just shared with you. The column represents the first page in Lien’s notebook.
Now, fast-forward 18 years to June 30, 2011.
Lien’s birthday is being celebrated with her family in one of Maastricht’s top restaurants.
And Herman springs the surprise.
Presenting her the notebook, he shared the story. Lien couldn’t believe what he was saying, asking him twice to explain it. She read each advertisement, crying out loud that her father was crazy.
And that it was the most beautiful, touching gift a father could give a daughter.
The local media in Flanders picked up on the story. The collection of birth announcement ads was published in a citizen journalism project of Het Belang van Limburg. Then the regional newspaper itself picked up on the story — which, in turn, alerted national daily Het Nieuwsblad, whose reporter interviewed the pair and produced its own coverage.
Het Nieuwsblad publisher Gert Ysebaert, an INMA member, told Herman that Lien’s story was the most read story on the day it was published, generating more traffic than stories about the marriage of Prince Albert of Monaco.
To this day, Herman and Lien continue to get reactions from people who read the story online.
I asked Herman if he learned anything from the nearly two-decade episode. He fumbled for answers. Maybe it proves that positive news sells? That women love birth announcements? That it was a great idea and big fun? That INMA is a fantastic global network?
I think he missed the point.
The story is not about any deep lessons. The story is not even about Lien.
The story is about Herman.
The story is about a father’s love and exuberance and unbridled joy about the birth of his first-born. The story is about channeling all of that excitement into an idea the equivalent of standing on a mountaintop.
In my telling of the story, the mountaintop is a collection of global birth announcements — facilitated by the INMA network — brought together in a notebook and presented to a daughter 18 years after her birth.
It is a touching reminder that magic can still happen when creativity meets passion.