The defining moment of Rio 2016 was Usain Bolt smiling at the camera

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Mark Sweney | the Guardian | Usain Bolt competes in the Men’s 100m semi-final on Day nine of the Rio 2016 Olympics. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

“Pea green is what it looked like, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to dive in it,” says Dawn Airey, as she remembers the strange case of the Olympic pools turning green in Rio earlier this month.

The chief executive of Getty Images chuckles at the thought, but however unappealing the murky waters may have been for the swimmers, it gave Getty, the official picture agency of the Rio Olympics, a chance to show off the capabilities of its state-of-the-art underwater robotic cameras.

“It did present a challenge, not one we expected, it was particularly unpleasant for photography. You want crystal clear water.”

For Airey, whose impressive CV includes top jobs at ITV, Channel 5, Sky and most recently Yahoo, the Olympics provided the first chance to really see her Getty colleagues in full flow since joining last October.

Getty had 120 staff in Rio, 40 of them photographers, with every snapper given a 360° camera to post extra images to Getty’s site. That’s as well as two underwater rigs and 20 other robotic set-ups across the Games.

“It gave me a great opportunity to see our guys doing what they do in the most technically advanced Olympics ever from a photographic point of view,” says Airey.

Michael Phelps of the United States, Zhuhao Li of China and Joseph Schooling of Singapore compete in the men’s 100m butterfly final. Photograph: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

But with 1.5 trillion photos a year being taken (Airey’s figure) – including runaway social media hits such as the “world’s best selfie” of Usain Bolt with Jessica Ennis-Hill and fellow heptathletes – is Getty’s position as a photographic giant being eroded one shot at a time?

“The defining image of the Games was probably Usain Bolt smiling down the lens of Cameron Spencer’s camera,” she says, referring to the image from the 100m semi-final likened to a smug Roadrunner taunting a hapless Wile E Coyote.

“We are in the age of selfies, and that’s great, but the fact that everyone has a phone doesn’t necessarily make them a photographer. Just like me having a pen doesn’t make me Shakespeare.”

“How did that shot happen? It wasn’t a freak occurrence. It was a very skilled photographer slowing his shutter speed down and knowing at what point Bolt tends to surge ahead. That isn’t luck, it is a high degree of skill and is one of the best Olympic shots of all time. That does not diminish user-generated photography of course.”

Airey, a sports fan who was a national judo champion at school, clearly relished her time teambuilding, networking and catching Olympic events on her five-day Rio trip.

She caught Andy Murray’s gold medal victory over Juan del Potro and in a match beforehand one of Getty’s tennis photographers let her take a shot, for which she is credited in the online archive.

“I certainly won’t get a royalty cheque,” says Airey, whose relaxed demeanour belies the nicknames of Scarey Airey and Zulu Dawn she relished earlier in her career.

Dawn Airey (right) with US Olympian Kim Rhode at Rio 2106. Photograph: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Prior to joining Getty Airey spent two-year transforming her TV roots into digital shoots as Yahoo’s top European executive. With the company facing an uncertain strategic future it wasn’t the happiest of stints in Airey’s career, but she holds no grudges and is positive about the venerable internet brand’s future now as part of Verizon.

“Yahoo is still a superbrand and Verizon aren’t in any shape or form going to crash it,” she says. “They will nurture it and love it. I hope Yahoo will get a new and different lease of life. It is a new Yahoo isn’t it? It is in a really interesting group.”

In part spurred by her time at one of the world’s biggest web companies, Airey has implemented a strategy to open up Getty’s huge archive of pictures to consumers.

While the company’s core raison d’etre remains selling its content to businesses, from publishers to ad agencies and corporate clients, she is keen to monetise and learn from consumer interest.

“The Instagrams and Pinterests of the world show this explosion of interest and imagery and we have hundreds of millions of page views and don’t do anything with them,” she says. “There is an opportunity right there. But I am fussy about what [advertising] images will appear on my site, so I’m going to be very discreet.”

She says that the company is going to “relax” more about people coming to view and share its images – for non-commercial purposes only – and will analyse trends and data to help shape its work with commercial clients.

“With the traffic we have and the deep knowledge we have about image and trends we have the ability to ‘productise’ our content for our clients,” she says. “Inform them what are the photos being viewed, shared at scale from Getty that can help them with their choices in what they get from us. It’s about super-serving existing clients.”

Harking back for a second to her former TV life I ask Airey what she thinks about the BBC’s charter renewal deal with the government.

Airey, who has in the past said that the BBC might look to charge for some services, was a member of former culture secretary John Whittingdale’s high-powered advisory panel bought in as part of the government’s review of the BBC ahead of charter renewal.

“I don’t think there was the battle [that people think],” she says. “I think that the BBC should be pretty pleased with settlement and I think they were. Nothing was as radical as had been feared.”

Airey in 2006 when she was Sky’s managing director of channels and services. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian

And on Channel 4, where she also once worked, Airey believes that the fears that a commercial owner might destroy its public service remit were over-played. While the government’s exploration of a potential privatisation this time round, she believes a sale will be a recurrent threat to the broadcaster.

“The battle seems to be done and dusted and [C4 chief executive] David Abraham and team did a good job of seeing off the barbarians at the gate so to speak,” she says. “But I think that [threat] will come back again and again in the future.”

Airey has business challenges of her own to face with sporadic negative articles about the performance of parts of the business, particularly against rivals in what is called the mid-stock market such as Shutterstock, the rate at which the company goes through cash and its level of debt.

Her response to the coverage is blunt: “That’s just a load of bollocks. We do have a lot of debt. But every business should. The question is can you service it. Do we have enough cash to run the business? Yes we do.”

Airey’s latest career incarnation couldn’t seem further removed from TV where she has spent most of her career, yet in some ways she feels like she has gone full circle, harking back to her early years at the launch of Channel 5 in the 1990s where she infamously referred to its content as “football, films and fucking”.

“I think I will like being ‘Getty’s Dawn Airey’ for a long time,” she says. “It feels a lot more like TV than Yahoo for me. It’s more creative. It feels in some ways like a big family. Like Channel 5 was which in some ways was when I was at my very best.

“It is generally a fabulous business with great people. We are in rude health. We are everywhere. It is a pretty famous brand. I just want it to perhaps resonate more than what it does with consumers by getting Getty everywhere.”

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