Profile: Nigel Dickie, Heinz UK & Ireland

Nigel Dickie thinks the British media are obsessed with food scares like no other. ‘In Europe, food issues make a small story on page 14.

In the US, maybe not even that. In the UK, health scares fill the front page,' he says. 'I suspect the British public have been sensitised by scares such as BSE and are not as trusting of food suppliers and administrators.'

This, it is fair to say, is an educated opinion. Since gaining a PhD in nutrition 25 years ago from the University of London (his thesis dealt with the importance of breakfast), 49-year-old Dickie has worked as company nutritionist for Unilever and editorial consultant at Slimming Magazine, as well as spending 20 years at food specialist Counsel PR, most recently owned by Huntsworth.

Despite a punishing penultimate week wrapping things up at Counsel – and having just come back from Heinz's HQ in Pittsburgh – Dickie looks remarkably fresh, chatting merrily to staff and bounding around the office.

He joined Counsel in 1985 as an account director, becoming a director two years later and taking over as MD in 1992. During this time he worked with Heinz (he confesses he joined Counsel after a recommendation from the food firm), so is expecting the transition from 'outside to inside' to be smooth. 'After 20 years working with Heinz, I imagine I know more about the business than most people there,' he explains.

Unusually for someone of his seniority, Dickie does not own a
BlackBerry – but Heinz has committed to equip him with one. From 7 November he takes charge of product and brand PR, as well as relations with media, trade bodies, NGOs and government (PRWeek, 28 October).

The PhD should prove useful for the latter half of that brief. 'A lot of food comms is based around the composition of food,' he explains.

'Understanding that enables me to talk to academics at the Food Standards Agency and NGOs, and then apply strategies that the public can understand.'

But despite Dickie being a nutrition expert, Huntsworth's chairman Lord Chadlington confesses that when the pair began working together five years ago, he wondered whether Dickie ate anything at all.

'Nigel is very hard working, and I still wonder what on earth he lives on,' says Chadlington. 'I've rarely seen him eat more than a banana, but when I asked him about it once he claimed he ate an enormous dinner and that was enough to keep him going.'

Dickie himself is full of praise for Chadlington's reign at Huntsworth, describing him as the man who 'transformed the agency from a rag bag of marketing services companies into a £200m business'.

'You don't have to explain anything to him because he knows everything there is to know about PR,' Dickie adds.  'He's also extremely connected to the business. If I send him an email I know I will get a detailed response – even if I send it at five to midnight.'

Sending emails at midnight might suggest a work obsessive, but that is not how Dickie comes across. He says he finds plenty of time to travel, chauffeur his children around and sneak off to watch Wimbledon in June. A musical taste that covers 'everything from Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and Wishbone Ash right through to Gwen Stefani'
also smacks of someone with a healthy concept of a work/life balance.

After 25 years in the food sector, does Dickie still find it interesting? 'Absolutely. Now is a fascinating time to be involved in the industry,' he enthuses. 'Recent studies into the enormous problems faced by the UK and US over obesity and ill-health have pushed the issue of the nation's diet right up the political agenda – and the Government currently spends hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on tackling everything from high blood pressure to salt intake.'

He adds: 'In addition to that, these days bad news can be half way across the world before the truth has even got its boots on.'

With that in mind, maybe the BlackBerry will come in handy after all.

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